Jurgen Klopp says Liverpool made it “too easy” for Real Madrid to win the quarter-final first leg between the sides, but feels Mohamed Salah’s goal offers his side a lifeline in the return game at Anfield.
The Reds were largely second best throughout an entertaining game against a Real team missing their first-choice centre-back pairing, but packed with impressive attacking talent.
Much of the damage was done in the first half through Vinicius Junior’s low drive after he had chested down a superb long pass from Toni Kroos and a Marco Asensio’s close-range finish following a defensive mistake from Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool came out fighting after the break, pulling a goal back through Salah’s finish off the crossbar to spark their best 20-minute spell of the contest.
But they were stung when Vinicius found the net via a first-time shot following a fine attacking move with 25 minutes to go, leaving them with a mountain to climb in the return leg at an empty Anfield on 14 April.
“If you want to go to the semi-final, you have to earn the right to do so,” Klopp told BT Sport. “We didn’t do that tonight, especially in the first half.
“We just didn’t play good enough football to cause Real Madrid more problems. We made it too easy for them.
“The only good thing I can say, apart from the goal, is it’s only the first half of the tie. We didn’t deserve a lot more but that one goal and the second half was OK. It gives us a lifeline.”
At the weekend, Liverpool ripped Arsenal apart, winning 3-0 in a display that some felt represented the turning of a corner for a side that have fallen well short of the standards they set during last season’s stellar title-winning campaign.
If that was one step forward, this was two steps back, with the Reds largely outclassed by a notably superior opponent. They repeatedly gave the ball away under pressure and were – barring a brief rally at the start of the second half – uncharacteristically pedestrian and toothless.
It said much that manager Klopp opted for a substitution just before the break, correcting his decision to start Naby Keita ahead of Thiago.
It could easily have been any of the Reds’ outfield 10 withdrawn, though, with the front three largely passengers, the centre-back pairing of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak looking every bit second-string and Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson often found out of position and exposed.
They were, however, aggrieved that a foul was not awarded for a challenge on Sadio Mane before Asensio’s goal – a subject Klopp commented on after the game.
“The situation with Sadio, what the ref did tonight I have to say I don’t understand,” he added. “For me that was something personal because he dealt with the situation with Sadio, which was a clear foul, like he was a diver or whatever.
“From that moment on whenever Sadio went down he didn’t get anything. That is not right. That is what I told him after the game, that I thought he was unfair with Sadio.
“That doesn’t change anything at all. He [the referee] didn’t lose the game. We were not good enough to get a better result, but in these moments you need just an ‘OK’ ref. That would have been enough.”
It is to the credit of Klopp and his players they were able to rectify some of their problems and get themselves back into the tie through Salah’s neat finish.
They were unable to build on it, though, with Salah and Diogo Jota spurning chances to restore parity.
Real’s third goal killed their momentum and turned the match into one Real could manage.
During their run to win the Champions League in 2019, Liverpool came back from a 3-0 away leg loss to beat Barcelona on aggregate via a stunning semi-final second leg full of ferocity and attacking brilliance.
They will need to do produce similar if they are to beat Barca’s fierce rivals in eight days’ time.
Real have not had consistently stellar campaign themselves, but they are now threatening to produce something special when it matters once again.
They made a habit of coming to life at the business end of a campaign during Zidane’s first spell as manager, especially in the Champions League, which they won three times in a row between 2016 and 2018.
In a seven-day stretch that could be season-defining, with a home La Liga game against fellow title-chasers Barcelona between the two legs of this tie, Real turned on the style for part one, with Vinicius the headline act.
It should come as no surprise. This is a side that have not lost since January and, in Zidane, have a canny boss capable of picking Liverpool’s weak spots out wide and steering his players to ruthlessly exploit them.
Much of the pre-game noise surrounded the absence of their first-choice center-back pairing – the talismanic Sergio Ramos (who has a calf injury) and Rafael Varane (who recently tested positive for Covid).
However, unlike their opponents, with Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez high-profile absentees, Real comfortably overcame their defensive issues, with replacements Nacho Fernandez and Eder Militao excellent, especially during the spell of intense Liverpool pressure.
Salah’s goal keeps the tie alive, but it is very much Real’s to lose.