The premise of Real Madrid facing Liverpool in the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Champions League in 2021 was not nearly as glorious as when they met three years ago in Kyiv, in the final itself. But there was something more emotional and more intense about the Real Madrid side in 2021. It was a side devoid of the player who produced 50 goals a season with no questions asked. It was a side crippled with injuries and underperforming forwards. It was a team with an injured captain who was unsure of his future. But most importantly, it was a team with a manager who was under immense pressure to live up to the extraterrestrial level of expectation that he had created himself.
On the other side, we had Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, the brand ambassadors for heavy-metal football, from the temple of gagenpressing, backed by the adoration of the British press. When German referee Felix Brych blew the whistle for kick-off at the state-of-the-art facilities of Valdebebas, all of this went out of the window and Real Madrid channeled their Champions League DNA to devastating effect.
Neither team could field their first choice XIs, but Zidane still had the more difficult reality. Three players from his preferred defense were missing. Lucas Vazquez, Eder Militao, and Nacho were not really seen as ideal personnel to deal with Liverpool’s intense approach to a game of this magnitude at that time of the season. Vinicius Jr was not the player he is this season at that time either. Zidane's only escape to sanity was in his midfield with Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, and Casemiro.
Real Madrid: Courtois, Lucas, Militao, Nacho, Mendy, Kroos, Casemiro, Modric, Vinicius, Benzema, Asensio.
Liverpool: Allison, Trent, Phillips, Kabak, Robertson, Wijnaldum, Fabinho, Keita, Mane, Jota, Salah.
Great positional discipline from the KCM trio was on display. Toni Kroos was the main orchestrator of things on the left — everything went through him. Madrid did a lot of recycling of their possession on both flanks. The average positioning of Lucas Vazquez was slightly more cautious than that of Ferland Mendy on the other flank. Vinicius Jr was given the freedom to make runs in behind the Liverpool center-backs. Asensio’s possessional involvement was minimal but it produced a goal for Madrid.
Liverpool on the other hand, were not allowed to play their natural game. Their ball progression stagnated for large stretches of the match. They tried to overload one flank to create space on the other. But they could not exploit these spaces as well as they wanted to.
Real Madrid took total control of the game through their midfield. Madrid’s top three passing clusters from this game were all through the mid-third of the pitch. The quality, composure and vision of Madrid’s midfield was too much to handle for Liverpool.
When it came to breaching the half-spaces, Madrid dominated the left-flank with Toni Kroos, Ferland Mendy, Vinicius Jr and even Karim Benzema at times operating form that part of the pitch.
In terms of individual performances, Eder Militao rose to the occasion and had a solid defensive outing despite Madrid conceding an away goal which ultimately was not enough for Liverpool. Militao had clearances in key areas of Madrid’s penalty area and won some vital aerial battles. In the midfield, Toni Kroos gave a lesson in passing to Liverpool including the creation of a glorious assist to Vinicius Jr from his own half.
On a collective level, Real Madrid had 16 attempts on goal compared to Liverpool’s seven. Jurgen Klopp brought in Thiago, Roberto Firmino and Xherdan Shaqiri in the second half to no avail. Zidane only used two of his substitutes in Fede Valverde and Rodrygo, making way for Vinicius and Asensio. Madrid won the game rather comfortably with a commanding 3 - 1 scoreline.
After the match, Klopp said that the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium was not a proper stadium and they expect a different show at the Anfield next week. Klopp’s side however, could not change their destiny in their home ground either in a game where Zidane had to play Fede Valverde as a right-back as Real Madrid’s injury woes worsened.
We look forward to a new year of 2022 with new energy but this game from 2021 will forever remain among the favourites.