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A failure in the dark arts leaves Liverpool with season-defining challenge

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Well, that was a sobering night at Real Madrid’s empty training complex after going into the game with cause for a bit of vague optimism.

Three successive victories and three consecutive clean sheets, dominating and demolishing Arsenal, an increasingly promising understanding between Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak, Trent Alexander-Arnold proving his point, outstanding facial hair from Alisson, Fabinho back in midfield, Thiago looking more at home, Diogo Jota available again, Mo Salah enjoying his football, and unbeaten for a month…

All said while whispering the bit about the international break.

Even Rio Ferdinand seemed sold on the concept of us going to Madrid a winning. Football’s sleight of hand continues to rob us blind.

In came Naby Keita, Gini Wijnaldum, and Jota, out went Thiago, James Milner, and Bobby Firmino, while there was no big, bad Sergio Ramos for them, along with a considerable number of his defensive comrades.

This one was all about which team could retain composure and exploit the vulnerabilities of their opponents more effectively. Emphatically, that team was Real.

Much was obviously made in the build-up about Liverpool’s ‘need’ for pantomime laced revenge for the 2018 Champions League final. Yet, throwing hype at football right now is a bit of a hopeless gesture.

When push comes to shove, pandemic flavoured football is just 22 men kicking a ball around a rectangular patch of grass, and Zinedine Zidane’s half of that 22 did it better than ours on Tuesday night.

I find Zidane the coach hard to fathom. Incredible success, but it’s somehow felt as if much of it has been in spite of his presence, rather than because of it. My subconscious regularly insists that he’s football’s biggest chancer, but the results and achievements keep stacking up.

Maybe Zidane really is less of a chancer than my instinct reckons he is.

Regardless, Jurgen Klopp got his approach wrong to this one. The omission of the improving Thiago seemed a strange one, especially as given he is an ex-Barcelona player, he would have been easily motivated.

The inclusion of Keita was bold but misjudged. Impressive in training he might have been but give him the chance to prove himself on Saturday at home to Aston Villa, rather than in Madrid during the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Keita wasn’t alone in playing poorly. Neither Wijnaldum nor Fabinho coped particularly well either. This was a collective failure and it was in midfield where Real excelled; it was in midfield where the game was won and lost.

Liverpool struggled with the basics and whether stemming from nervousness or overconfidence, just the simple base rules of making your pass find another red shirt seemed difficult to master. Trent’s assist in Real’s second goal was the peak of this phenomenon.

We could have fielded the reincarnations of Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento as our front three and they still would have been isolated.

It was a bright start from Real and aside from the first ten minutes of the second half, we never matched their intensity and focus. Whether the news of their demise is greatly exaggerated or we were just awful enough to make them look the part, maybe the return game will decide.

Vinicius Jr was our chief tormentor. A stylish sort of route one to open the scoring, Toni Kroos with the weighted ball, Vinicius with the excellent control and finish, it was a mad header from Trent to set up the second. Asensio flicked it over Alisson’s head and bundled it over the line.

Before the interval, it could have been three, with much potential for more self-inflicted wounds. Keita was hooked before the break, which made for an indignant end to a testing 42 minutes of football.

From being impossible to ignore in training, Keita might just have seen the fatal blow to a Liverpool career that promised so much yet has delivered nowhere near the levels he’s capable of. Klopp’s removal of him from the fray was brutal and symbolic.

As the first half lumbered on, a selection of shout outs about who would make a difference from the bench were made across social media. Nobody seemed to mention James Milner, but it was his belligerence that was sorely missed. We needed someone to deal in the dark arts.

Thiago had a go in the early exchanges of the second half, picking up the statutory yellow card for a mistimed tackle. It might have been a different outcome had that happened at the beginning of the game. In some games, it isn’t about how well you dance, it’s about being a bit of an arse, and knocking the opposition out of their stride. In Madrid, we weren’t enough of an arse.

Thiago’s yellow card came shortly after Salah had pulled an all-important away-goal back, and for a few minutes, Liverpool suddenly looked like they might turn the game completely on its heads.

As ever, it’s always best to give it a couple of minutes before acknowledging a goal though, and sure enough, a clearly onside strike was assessed to within an inch of its soul by VAR. I didn’t initially celebrate the goal, and by the time it was given the green light, the moment had gone.

For the five minutes until Vinicius made it 3-1, the game took on a punch and counterpunch stance. There was a chance for Kroos, then an opportunity for Sadio Mane. Liverpool were then almost caught on the break, from a corner.

None of the signs read, Vinicius then made it 3-1. Alisson was unsighted but should perhaps have kept it out. It is neither a mistake nor a save. From here, Real drew the sting after their third goal. Happy to play keep-ball, to probe periodically for another goal or to wait for further mistakes, content not to concede a second away goal.

A week is a long time in football, and while Liverpool can turn it around you wouldn’t confidently back us to keep a clean sheet. We will likely need three or four goals at Anfield. It will be a season hinging game, played out in an empty stadium, where we haven’t won for almost four months or scored two or more goals since mid-December.

If we fail to beat Aston Villa on Saturday, if Budapest won’t take us, I suggest we shift the return game with Real to Haig Avenue.

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