LIVERPOOL, England — It took a while for the frustration, the anger and the hurt to bubble to the surface. For about an hour on Tuesday night, Liverpool’s fans had watched with grim forbearance as their team was expertly dismantled by Real Madrid at Anfield.
They urged on Jürgen Klopp’s players after they threw away a two-goal lead in the first half. They stood by them as Real Madrid made it 3-2 and then 4-2 and finally 5-2, a loss turning into a rout. They remained stoic as they witnessed the collapse of their season, as they endured the most chastening evening in Anfield’s illustrious European history.
But then there was the passing: The passing was the final straw. As the game wound down, as the crowd started to thin out just a little, Real Madrid decided to indulge in a little game of keepaway. They slipped passes between, beside and around their bedraggled opponents. They offered them a glimpse of the ball and then spirited it away at the last moment.
They maintained it for a minute or two, Liverpool’s players lolling and lagging as they dashed around in hopeless pursuit. It was an indignity too far. It is one thing being beaten — particularly by Real Madrid — and it is quite another being taunted. The crowd started to whistle, and then to jeer: at Real Madrid, at its own players, chasing at shadows, at this whole long, damned, miserable season.
That Real Madrid won at Anfield does not count as a surprise of any sort. This is Real Madrid, after all, and this is the Champions League. A stirring Real Madrid recovery is part of the deal. To a large extent it is increasingly odd that anyone else bothers entering the competition.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team has mastered the comeback, turned it into an art form, boiled it down to its very essence. En route to European glory last season, Real Madrid generally required the full span of a two-legged tie, up to and including extra time in the second leg, to stage the miraculous recovery that has become its calling card.
The only change this season — on this evidence — is that it has streamlined the process to such an extent that it now takes no more than half an hour, with a break in the middle for a quick bite to eat.
Far more striking than the fact of Liverpool’s defeat on Tuesday, then, was the manner of it. Somewhere deep inside this Liverpool team is the muscle memory of what it once was, and not all that long ago. It is only nine months, after all, since it played its third Champions League final in five years, Klopp sufficiently confident that the halcyon days would keep rolling that he advised his team’s fans — even in defeat — to book their hotel rooms for this year’s showpiece.
For 15 minutes, it was possible to wonder if this stage, and this opponent, might be enough to stir those ghosts to life. Liverpool surged to an early lead, thanks to an inventive, audacious flick from Darwin Nuñez, and then doubled it when Thibaut Courtois forgot how to work his legs and presented the ball to Mohamed Salah. In between, Salah had wasted two more chances. Here, at last, were the flickers that Liverpool’s fans had been waiting months to see.
And then the reverie suddenly evaporated and reality descended. Vinícius Júnior scored one goal, wonderfully, and then had a second presented to him by the Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson. It had the effect of breaking the spell. The clock struck midnight. Éder Militão made it three. Karim Benzema had a shot deflected into the goal for four, and then danced through, his shoes soft and his touch sure, to make it five.
Liverpool, suddenly, looked to be what it has been for much of the season: a mid-table Premier League team caught in the throes of an awkward, jarring transition. The difference, this time, was that it was being forced to play the European champion.
Quite how Liverpool’s collapse has happened remains, even now, something of a mystery. Thousands of words have been dedicated in recent months in an attempt to understand how a team that was so painstakingly constructed, put together with such thought and expertise and precision, could come apart at the seams so quickly and so easily. How something so good could prove so ultimately fragile.
There are concrete factors that certainly seem to have contributed. Injuries have not helped, of course, compounding a failure to upgrade the midfield. The effects of last season, in which Liverpool became the first English team to play every game in every competition for which it was eligible — winning two trophies, but neither of the prizes it most wanted — have lingered, both physically and psychologically.
But then there are the intangible factors, the theoretical and the emotional strands, the charges that can only ever take the form of questions: Has Liverpool been too loyal to the core of Klopp’s team? Has upheaval behind the scenes, the departure of several key members of the staff, disrupted the harmony the club had worked so hard to foster? If so, has that had any effect on performances?
Whatever the causes, the effects were all there, on the field, against a team that less than a year ago Liverpool could — largely rightly — consider its equal. When Klopp, upon reviewing last year’s final for the first time this week, commented that it was a game his team could have won, he was not simply presenting a brave face.
Now, though, the gulf is wide. The temptation is to focus on the major mistakes — Alisson’s misjudgment for the second goal, the stationary marking for the third, Joe Gomez’s body shape for the fourth — but more telling are the little things.
It is the speed with which Liverpool passes the ball, just a touch slower than before. It is the spaces between its players, a little too large, and the cohesion between its lines, now ever so slightly ragged. It is in the intensity of its press, somehow diluted and dimmed.
Each element feeds on the others, eroding confidence and sapping purpose, until the whole system seems fractured beyond repair. And it was at that point that Real Madrid, with that air of total self-assurance, started to pass the ball around, Liverpool’s players powerless to stop them, their fall from the rarefied heights they once shared with these opponents complete.