Ultimately the Anfield factor was not the vital missing ingredient from Liverpool’s attempted rescue mission against Real Madrid. It was the finish.
Jürgen Klopp’s side performed with the energy of 55,000 fans seemingly behind them but a wasteful night in front of Thibaut Courtois’s goal enabled the Spanish champions to escape the punishment that has befallen many before them. Liverpool’s dream of another Champions League triumph in Istanbul is over.
A goalless draw was sufficient to take Zinedine Zidane’s team into a semi-final meeting with Chelsea and, in fairness, Madrid’s clean sheet owed plenty to the alertness of the former Chelsea goalkeeper and the resilience of a makeshift defence that improved as the contest wore on. The visitors, raiding almost at will on the counterattack in the closing stages, also lacked a clinical touch. But Liverpool will legitimately ponder what might have been as they digest a trying and now trophy-less campaign.
The Premier League champions had ample opportunity to have added Madrid’s scalp to the list of stirring European comebacks at Anfield. Courtois made impressive stops, Éder Militão important blocks, but Liverpool’s inability to turn the tie was primarily down to their own failings in the Madrid penalty area.
Over 180 minutes Zidane’s men defended better and finished better when on home soil. Liverpool can take solace from their vast improvement on the first leg but can have no complaints over their exit. Their season, and participation in next year’s Champions League, now hinges on securing a top four finish.
In terms of intensity, a blistering opening and fighting until the end, Liverpool answered Klopp’s pre-match call to show “our best selves” against Madrid. There had been a sombre start to proceedings with a minute’s silence for the 96 Liverpool fans who were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough on the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the disaster. A window on the Madrid team coach was smashed as it approached the stadium. Allegedly by a bottle. Certainly by an idiot.
From the moment referee Björn Kuipers got the second leg under way, however, the sterile atmosphere was forgotten as an absorbing European tie took shape.
Liverpool launched themselves into the game. But for the legs and fingertips of Courtois, they would have had the 2-0 lead required after only 11 minutes.
Their first and ultimately best chance arrived in the second minute when Ozan Kabak prised open an injury-hit Madrid defence with a hopeful ball over the top. Sadio Mané, racing in behind Militão, squared inside to the unmarked Mohamed Salah. Liverpool’s leading goalscorer struck first time but too close to the Courtois, who blocked with his left leg.
As in the first leg, Klopp again omitted Thiago Alcântara from his starting lineup only this time chose James Milner to replace the midfielder instead of Naby Keïta. The veteran’s brief may have been to destruct, and he left an early mark on Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, but he almost produced a stunning goal after Salah and Roberto Firmino combined to find him in space. Milner curled a precision finish towards the top corner from 25 yards but Courtois, flinging to his left, was equal to the effort with a superb fingertip save.
Madrid’s quality in the final third could not be stifled completely, of course. Benzema almost plundered an away goal when he spun away from Nathaniel Phillips, who had a fine game, and darted across Kabak into the area. A deflection off Kabak’s knee took the French forward’s shot beyond Alisson and on to the base of the post.
Casemiro, moments after being fouled by Fabinho, brought the entire Liverpool bench to their feet when he took retribution on Milner in front of the home dugout. The booking was inevitable without their protestations. Groans also emanated from that small section of Anfield as their team continued to create and squander opportunities to turn the quarter-final on its head. Mané was yards away from connecting with a glorious Alexander-Arnold cross to the far post. Salah blazed over after good work from Wijnaldum, who skied a glorious chance himself after Alexander-Arnold had driven his way through four static white shirts.
The pattern continued at the start of the second half with Courtois thwarting Firmino at his near post and the Brazilian heading over when found by another Alexander-Arnold right wing delivery. Madrid’s threat increased as Liverpool pushed in search of a lifeline. Alisson denied Vinícius after he had been played through by a sublime cross-field ball from Federico Valverde, a surprising choice at right back. Benzema miscued a header down and over the bar when picked out unmarked by Ferland Mendy. Klopp threw on every attacking option he could find. But Liverpool could not find a way. Not this time.