Liverpool will need to produce another huge European display at Anfield if they are to reach the last four of the Champions League after suffering a crushing quarter-final first-leg loss to Real Madrid.
The Reds were largely second best throughout an entertaining game in Spain against a Real side missing its first-choice centre-back pairing, but packed with impressive attacking talent.
Much of the damage was done in the first half, begun when Vinicius Junior took down a brilliant long-range pass from Toni Kroos on his chest before firing the opener past Alisson.
Marco Asensio doubled the lead, taking advantage of a lose header from Trent Alexander-Arnold to chip the ball over Alisson and then tap into an empty net.
Liverpool came out fighting after the break, pulling a goal back through Mohamed Salah’s close-range 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.
It leaves them with a mountain to climb in the return leg at an empty Anfield on 14 April.
Two steps back for Liverpool
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 Jurgen 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It could easily have been any of the Reds’ outfield 10 withdrawn, though, with the front three largely passengers, the centre-back pairing of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak looking every bit second-string and Alexander-Arnold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 aggrieved that a foul was not awarded for a challenge on Sadio Mane ahead of Asensio’s goal, but 2-0 was the least Real deserved at the break.
It is to the credit of Klopp and his players that 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.
The Real deal
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 of a stellar card.
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 centre-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.