Karim Benzema seals inevitable Real Madrid win against limp Liverpool | Champions League
“On the good side of history” declared the banner stretched across the south stand of the Santiago Bernabéu, a place built on epic tales, but Real Madrid did not need one this time. Instead, they reasserted their status with a calm authority, refusing to allow a rebellion, let alone a comeback. That is their thing, after all.
That Liverpool are out of the Champions League is no surprise after a 5-2 defeat at Anfield three weeks ago, or after the season they have had. What might be a surprise is that they never inflicted any suffering upon this stadium nor made more of a story of this evening.
A game that needed lots goals got just one, and it was Madrid’s. Scored by Karim Benzema with 12 minutes remaining, the temptation would be to say that it ended the tie except that it had already felt over. Jürgen Klopp had said that for as long as there was a 1% chance, he would like to give it a go but for most of the night the odds didn’t even look that good. This wasn’t the place, nor was it Liverpool’s time: maybe it just isn’t their time any more, this having a feeling of end of an era.
When the full-time whistle went, the Bernabéu PA played You’ll Never Walk Alone and the fans stood to applaud Liverpool and their supporters, an act that spoke of respect, if not so much for what had happened here but all those other times. An act of solidarity perhaps too, after what they had suffered together in Paris.
Liverpool’s European record over the last six years is extraordinary, yet in each of them their journey came to an end with Madrid. Four times Real stopped them: in two finals, a quarter-final and now here; once, Atlético did, in the last 16. The one time Liverpool won it, they did so in … Madrid.
It is not that Liverpool played badly, as such. They just were not good enough, perhaps even that they are not good enough, those flashes of what they aspire to be too fleeting. Unable to go up through the gears when they needed, Liverpool did not manage a shot on target in the second half. Madrid, their manager said, had been just better. They finished the game with 17 attempts.
Carlo Ancelotti had announced it would be an open game, if only because Liverpool had to come for them, but it didn’t work out that way. They were only 40 seconds in when Benzema almost gave the ball away inside his own area, but the pressure applied there, once the essence of Klopp’s team, was rarely apparent. Ancelotti had also said his team would inevitably have doubts whereas the visitors could have none yet at times, Liverpool looked contemplative, unsure: this was not the full throttle, the madness, that refusal to let opponents breathe.
That may have been the plan or just the reality of their limitations right now. Plus the threat, of course, of Madrid’s greatest weapon: the counter, Vinícius Júnior scampering beyond. Either way, Toni Kroos took control, the visitors unexpectedly deep, standing off or being forced to. Klopp had talked of the need to defend well, to not concede, while Fabinho had said that it would be OK if they reached half time 0-0, and so it was.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t chances; there were. But Madrid had more opportunities in that opening 30 minutes even though Diogo Jota had the first good chance after seven minutes, slipped in by Mohamed Salah after he had rolled Antonio Rüdiger. The shot had not been struck well and when Salah gave him another chance, this time on the volley, Jota scuffed that too.
At the other end, Alisson’s right hand denied Vinícius from close range, Eduardo Camavinga curled a shot off the bar via the goalkeeper’s fingertips and Luka Modric fired just over before Vinícius drew another save from Alisson. Madrid appeared in control, but Liverpool did step up a little, Salah so often the spark. When they finally got a truly dangerous effort on target, though, there was that guy again, Thibaut Courtois pushing away Darwin Núñez’s shot one minute and Cody Gakpo’s the next.
At some point the acceleration would have to come. Whether Liverpool were able to bring it or Madrid would allow it was another matter and it was nearly all over soon after when Fede Valverde was sent clean through, Alisson saving again.
The question was: for what? It was one thing to stay in the game, another to get back in the tie, and there was little sign of Liverpool making an epic of this. Jota and Núñez made way for Harvey Elliott and Roberto Firmino but this felt like a case of just seeing out time now, Madrid managing the evening, keeping the ball at their feet and Liverpool at arm’s length.
Attacking too. Modric turned wonderfully and struck a glorious ball which Valverde headed over. Vinícius then sped in and laid the ball across for Benzema to shoot over. Even Dani Carvajal had a go. Liverpool needed a goal, Madrid didn’t but it was they who sought it most. When it came, Benzema rolling in with the clock ticking down, it felt almost like an act of mercy, time to put an end to the pretence.