La Liga’s leaders were a distinct second best on Wednesday night, sliced open for a series of chances that either met Thibaut Courtois, a despairing block or wayward finishing. But they had already done enough, aced the hard part.
Jurgen Klopp’s side, meanwhile, could have scored at least four at home, but got none. The pain of that will marry the anger of the fact their exit from the tournament was a near certainty after their malfunction during the first half of the opening leg.
They caved in Madrid. Here they gave and gave and gave, but there was to be no reward on the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.
The night began in unwelcome circumstances for Liverpool, when an object was thrown from a crowd of around 200 people outside Anfield, smashing a window of Real’s team bus.
Before the club could dig into dwindling a two-goal deficit, a statement was released unequivocally condemning the behaviour and a sincere apology to the “visitors for any distress caused.”
The plan was to make Real as uncomfortable as possible on the pitch, not prior, and the team delivered during an aggressive opening 15 minutes.
Liverpool offered more in that spell than they did during the entire first leg. They pressed intensely, covered well in defence and created big chances with Zinedine Zidane’s men on the ropes.
And it was almost the perfect start shortly after the first whistle. Ozan Kabak sprayed a glorious long ball through the middle that Sadio Mane cushioned and couriered to Mohamed Salah.
The Egyptian struck, but Courtois made good use of his frame and parried the effort.
Liverpool came again, Mane exploding down the left before launching an inviting cross, which evaded Roberto Firmino six yards. Salah tried to force the ball in at the far post, but had to settle for a corner.
The Merseysiders have spent an in excess of £100 million on Thiago, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, yet the leadership and experience of James Milner was selected in midfield instead.
And after phenomenal feet from Salah, the veteran opened up his body and shaped a 25-yard shot towards the top right. Courtois, at full stretch, tipped it around the post.
Liverpool should have been two goals to the good, but Real navigated the early blitz and slowed the game down.
They had not carved any openings of note, but Karim Benzema seized on a Nathaniel Phillips miscontrol, spinning to shoot with the ball deflecting off Kabak’s shin.
Alisson was beaten by the change in trajectory, but the effort crashed off the post and Vinicius Junior was weak in returning the rebound.
There was a lull, with Casemiro’s late tackle on Milner turning up the angst.
Just as the clash felt like it was drifting away from how Liverpool sketched it, they had two supreme opportunities to hurt Real.
Gini Wijnaldum wonderfully motioned away from Toni Kroos, supplying Mane.
The Senegal international applied a neat pass across goal and Salah swivelled before trying to curl a trademark beauty into the top corner, but cleared the bar.
Then Trent Alexander-Arnold was strong down the right and cut back to an unmarked Wijnaldum. With time and space, he incredulously blazed over.
Liverpool were doing everything right - even denying Real a shot from inside the box in the first half - but they hadn’t nothing to show for it.
Courtois parried brilliantly to thwart Firmino after the break after more super play from Alexander-Arnold.
But the tempo of the encounter had dropped, much to Real’s relief.
With an hour played, Klopp removed Milner for Thiago, taking off Kabak and throwing on Diogo Jota with Fabinho going into the heart of defence.
Liverpool had an extra attacker and one of the best passers in world football on the pitch, but there was danger down the other end.
Alisson displayed top goalkeeping to stop Vinicius Junior one-on-one and then halted Benzema, before springing up and swinging clear.
Salah, Firmino and Jota all tried to will the ball in, but Real were putting in more blocks than Lego.
The substitutions rolled on, the minutes ticked away, and the mind couldn’t help but wander back to Madrid and wonder what might have been had Liverpool shown this brand of courage, confidence and clarity of strategy.
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