Liverpool – Real Madrid: Silly Scousers Rattle The Royal Nest (2-5)
Liverpool’s last three Champions League ventures have all ended at the hands of a team from the Spanish capital. That fate seems to have caught them out once more at the hands of the reigning champions. But never before has their downfall been so dramatic or damning.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
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Liverpool may be picking up the pieces of a campaign on the collapse. Expectations were high for an outfit on the cusp of the quadruple during the final weeks of May 2022. What has transpired has been a stressful season in which the club has already failed to defend the Carabao or FA Cup while the task of a top four challenge has displaced league title ambitions. Two wins in a row have put them back on track to achieve that target. Could their form inspire a strong showing on a European night at Anfield?
This stage could also bring out the best in Real Madrid, for whom the Champions League might soon become the only crown they can retain. Their Catalan rivals have announced their plans for Spanish supremacy in the new year, accruing an eight point lead at the top of LaLiga and an emphatic 3-1 win in the Supercopa da España final. Simply put, Carlo Ancelotti’s men are not exactly in their pomp. But the more one backs them into a corner— the better the continent’s royalty rallies to find a response.
Ancelotti revealed that Dani Carvajal would be the right back long before the evening. Less sure was his solution to the midfield, where Toni Kroos and Aurélien Tchouaméni were not back fully fit from illness. He chose to drop Dani Ceballos to the bench and placed Federico Valverde on the right of the midfield. Rodrygo took his place as the right winger, and Karim Benzema spearheaded the offensive.
Jürgen Klopp had a simpler selection of eleven men. He picked the same starters from the weekend’s victory over Newcastle United. The youthful Stefan Bajčetić has held onto his spot in the middle of the park to the left of Fabinho. Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino added to the options on the sideline, but Darwin Núñez, Cody Gakpo, and Mo Salah were the forwards that took to the field from kickoff.
Liverpool fly forward
Madrid’s rearguard stood firm in Paris but fell apart within four minutes of the start of this match. The right edge of the offense from the hosts was again decisive. Henderson fed the ball to Salah on the flank and overlapped. David Alaba backed away, allowing the winger to slip a pass into the path of Núñez inside the box. A cheeky flick matched the timing of his run to dupe Thibaut Courtois. 1-0.
Indeed, Ancelotti claimed he set out his players with a different approach to that final, favoring a more open duel rather than a low, firm block. Karim Benzema was alone from the front in a 4-5-1 formation where Liverpool had ample space in front of the midfield. Modrić often moved to Fabinho to better control this zone, but the presence the home team drew into this area pulled them apart.
Bajčetić dropped to the left of Fabinho in front of Valverde, and Alexander-Arnold tended to move into the halfspace. Behind the midfield, Gakpo roamed between the lines, and the man in the right halfspace completed a box structure in the middle of the park. Looser cover from Vinícius on the left, and the trouble of finding access in the pockets next to Benzema, helped Liverpool move into the final third. Salah profited from these gaps, probing at Alaba, and soon put his name onto the score sheet.
10th minute: offensive sequence from Liverpool. Gakpo, Bajčetić and Fabinho drop off to support Henderson, drawing Madrid’s three midfielders out to engage. Alexander-Arnold pins Alaba inside, Henderson has access to the wide passing lane to Salah and combines with the inverted fullback.
Within a quarter of an hour, Liverpool had doubled their lead to exploit the guests’ frailty. Alaba and Camavinga lost their battles within the middle of the pitch, setting away Gakpo from the center circle. Carvajal hacked the ball from the forward, allowing Courtois to set off another possession sequence. But the goalkeeper dawdled and dallied, knocking the ball into Salah. He gleefully struck home.
Masterful Madrid manage their way back to parity
Madrid began to muster their reaction, turning to their left for the source of a breakthrough. If Modrić was responsible for calming down the game from the buildup phase, Benzema stitched together the pieces in the final third. He drifted to the left flank, linking up with Vinícius on the corner of the box. Henderson gambled on a return pass to the striker from the winger that never arrived; his wingman was then free to chop inside and whipped a shot into the corner of the net past the reach of Alisson.
Liverpool’s classic 4-3-3 pressing structure had forced the issue in the first fifteen minutes of the game. The wingers watched out for the passing lanes to the fullbacks, Gakpo blocked off access to Camavinga, and the front six could shut central traps if he made mistakes in the buildup. But the intensity and discipline of this scheme have seen better days. Soon enough, Modrić lent a hand to his younger teammate, while flexibility from both the flanks forged a growing threat in the final third.
22nd minute: buildup sequence from Madrid. Camavinga moved higher to make room for Modrić, pulling out Henderson from the midfield. The veteran bounces the ball off Eder Militão and moves laterally to pin Gakpo to the ball far side. Salah presses Antonio Rüdiger from the outside to block Alaba and Henderson anticipates a third man pass to the left back, so Camavinga can turn freely.
The raucous Anfield atmosphere eventually took another hit. Bajčetić tried to dance through pressure but gave away possession to Valverde. He pushed his pass beyond Vinícius, whom Gomez covered. The central defender found Alisson, who tried to shift the play from the back. But his gaffe canceled that from Courtois at the other end of the pitch, inadvertently kicking the ball off Vinícius into the net.
Benzema brings home the advantage
Liverpool attacked the Kop End after the break but endured a horrific opening to the second half. Within sixty seconds of the restart, Vinícius drove down the line and attracted a foul from Gomez. Modrić stepped up to float the free kick to the edge of the six yard box. Militão ghosted to the near post, completely free, and powered a headed effort into the net. The turnaround was now complete.
Madrid turned the screw. Bajčetić riskily punched the ball forward, and Fabinho could only partly delay a transition. Rodrygo sprinted away down the right flank and worked ruthlessly in tandem with Benzema. The pair combined to take Fabinho out of the game, and the striker hit a strike at goal. Gomez deflected the effort out of the path of Alisson, doubling the advantage for the guests.
Strategically, the tie was at Madrid’s mercy. The tandem of Benzema and Vinícius was an excellent foil to the ball retention of the midfielders. Tactically, their manager had altered his side to tighten up their defense. Nacho had come on for Alaba in the first half, locking down Salah, while Valverde moved to the left of the midfield to control the room next to Vinícius. Liverpool had no response.
Karim Benzema vs Liverpool— احسن (@LosBlancoEhsan) February 22, 2023
Ancelotti’s men smelt blood and struck again. Fabinho lost possession to Modrić, whose ball carrying broke open the field. He teed up Vinícius, who then assisted Benzema. The talisman cut away from an onrushing Alisson to leave him trailing in his wake and buried a shot with his left boot to bag a brace. Sequences of rondos rounded off a remarkable display in which Madrid had again asserted their class.
Liverpool’s latest run of form seems to have been a false dawn. Indeed, the offense has continued to be productive, if a little wasteful, during this season. However, the defense remains fragile. From set-pieces, where Klopp had found marginal gains in previous years, to the pressing and transition model for which he is renowned, the manager is still searching for answers. And if the final half hour indicates what awaits in Madrid, he is about to come head on with a major strategic nightmare.
It was a typical day at the office for Real Madrid in Europe. Ancelotti wished his men had made a better start to the game, but it is now the norm that these deficits produce comebacks on the grand stage. The efficiency of their forwards made a difference on the scoreline, but the savviness of their veterans allowed them to ride out the storm and reach a sizeable margin of victory. A place in the quarter-finals of the competition is theirs to lose— and so, it seems, is the trophy altogether.
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