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Liverpool mystery now a major concern as Real Madrid expose another new problem

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The last time Liverpool were beaten by Real Madrid, the disappointment was silver lined with a sense of pride.

The 2018 Champions League final defeat hurt, no question, but there was a tangible feeling that Jurgen Klopp's men were destined for greater things.



They would, of course, be proven right.



This time around, however, another defeat by that same 3-1 margin to the royals of Spain leaves Klopp with a feeling that much must be improved upon if this chundering journey towards Istanbul is to go any further.



Liverpool will consider themselves hugely fortunate that they are still alive in this season's Champions League after this.

But crucially, they are.

The inquests over this performance can wait until the outcome of the second leg on April 14.

Another huge Anfield night must await them next week if they are to see the semi-finals for the third time in four seasons.

But hats cannot be hung on that right now given the sheer dearth of quality that has been on offer in L4 since the turn of the year.

A lack of fans will leave Klopp's side hamstrung when they invite Zinedine Zidane and co to Merseyside next week, but from somewhere, they must summon the kind of spirit that has so often seen them through on these huge nights of European action.

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In the modest surroundings of the 6,000-seat Di Stefano Stadium, inside Real Madrid's training base of Valdebebas, Liverpool struggled to settle.

In fact, the low-key venue almost seemed to knock the visitors out of their stride as passes went astray and Real dominated.

In another world, this game would have gone down as another famous entry into Liverpool's European folklore.

Played in front of a red-hot Bernabeu with thousands of Reds supporters flooding into the Spanish capital to write one more memorable chapter of their continental adventures.

Instead, fans were forced to settle for their TV screens only as Klopp's side were entertained at a training ground.

And while the setting betrayed the enormity of the fixture, Liverpool still allowed the size of the occasion to get into their heads.

The Reds were undone by a special piece of play from Toni Kroos for the opening goal as he played a raking pass from back to front for the excellent Vinicius Junior to finish off with aplomb just before the half-hour mark.

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Within three touches of the ball being on the edge of Real's box, it was in the back of the Reds' net. The line was perhaps too high but it was a stunning move from the wily old campaigners.

The 13-time winners doubled their advantage through Marco Asensio as they cut through the visitors far too easily again from Kroos.

This time, Trent Alexander-Arnold's sloppy header across goal allowed the Real forward to sneak in and convert.

With a shell-shocked Liverpool unable to string two passes together to get anywhere near their hosts' goal, Klopp made his first substitute of the evening, bringing Naby Keita's evening to an end with a few minutes of the first half left to play.

That Keita was swapped for Thiago Alcantara with half time just moments away spoke volumes.

"Tactical" was Klopp's explanation after the game, which is jarring given how close the sub came before the end of the half.

The fact that Keita did not see out the first half was a big indictment, even if any sort of scapegoating is harsh given the widespread paucity of the collective performance in the opening 45 minutes.

The decision to start the Guinea international for just the second time of the calendar year was a huge call from Klopp, pre-match.

Performances in training that could no longer be ignored was the reasoning behind that decision, the manager said, but the £52million midfielder looked lost.

He was not alone on that particular front, but it now must represent a huge source of concern for Liverpool that their third most expensive player of all time simply cannot be relied upon when the big stage arrives.

It's four years this summer since it was confirmed that Keita would be a Liverpool player but he remains something of a mystery. A talented player who too often, for various reasons, is unable to make a defining contribution.

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Salah became only the second Liverpool player to score against Real Madrid in Spain when he tucked home from Diogo Jota's scuffed effort early into the second period.

For all the frustration around how the Reds had failed to do themselves any sort of justice, they always have a chance with the peerless Salah in their ranks.

It's now 27 goals for the Egyptian with the big tally of 30 firmly in his sights. Liverpool might need him to go within touching distance of that target if they are to reach the last four.

Suddenly the six-time champions were transformed and began swarming forward in numbers as chances came for Jota and Mane, who struggled all night against the street smarts of Lucas Vazquez.

Like the first period, though, the Reds' defending would be their downfall and Vinicius grabbed his second of the night with a fairly tame finish that perhaps should not have beaten Alisson.

With Madrid content to take the sting out of proceedings, Klopp brought on Xherdan Shaqiri and Roberto Firmino for Jota and Ozan Kabak, as Fabinho dropped back into defence.

That double change was unable to inspire what would have been a precious second away goal in the Spanish capital.

Once again, it is left to events at Anfield to rescue it from the fire for Liverpool in the Champions League.

Only this time, they are without their most potent weapon.

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