Liverpool’s Champions League collapse against Real Madrid deepens questions about what’s next for Jurgen Klopp End-shutdown

There were only two seconds between when Karim Benzema flicked the ball past Alisson and when he slotted it into the top left corner to end Real Madrid’s 5-2 comeback win at Anfield, but it felt like a age. The storm raged as Liverpool defenders struggled with no idea how they were supposed to respond to this latest attack. Joe Gomez could get in the right direction in time to put a stray leg nowhere near the ball. By then, he’d been so brutally exposed that he couldn’t blame him if all the fighting was gone.

With that fifth goal, everything Liverpool had done well was gone. There was, it should be noted, a lot of that in those first 20 minutes, a vision of a new front three that could have the same exponential impact as the trident Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. The latter, who became his team’s top scorer in the Champions League when he punished a loose touch from Thibaut Courtois, seemed to enjoy a role that mixed creator and scorer. Cody Gakpo was dropping deep, bringing defenders with him and creating space for Darwin Nunez to collide.

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But this is an amazingly fragile Liverpool. Fabinho used to be one step ahead of every counterattack, now he crashes to the ground in a desperate chase for the ball. Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are no longer on the same wavelength. Virgil van Dijk’s imperious phase could be over. When Jamie Carragher jokes on the UEFA Champions League post-match show at Paramount+ that he would break into the team before the reigning No. 4, his immediate response might simply be ‘well, go ahead, it doesn’t hurt to take a look, right?’

Van Dijk used to be the great trick code of defense, his five-yard burst, anticipation and strength getting his teammates out of all sorts of sticky situations. Now, it serves to accentuate the weaknesses of others who still trust him.

In such circumstances, the unexpected is par for the course. Alisson threw caution overboard just as he would not have hurt to kick a long shot at Gakpo, to let the clock be his friend for the final nine minutes of the first half. As soon as the ball bounced off Vinicius Junior and into the net, those familiar insecurities surfaced. Liverpool suddenly remembered that they were the team that had been beaten by Brentford, Brighton and Wolves. So did Real Madrid, who came to the conclusion that they already had enough in the tank to cross over to the eighth best team in the Premier League, now facing a season that probably ends on March 15 at the Santiago Bernabéu.

It just makes it all the more painful that, to keep up with the home team nonsense, there were moments that would grace the Liverpool of Jurgen Klopp’s best years. Darwin Nunez’s particular brand of mayhem fits right into this contest, but his heel-heavy conversion of a Mohamed Salah cross was finesse and thunder rolled into one, a player who so often this season has failed to time the simple things sending the ball flying off his right boot and past Thibaut Courtois. . The Uruguayan was running into Trent Alexander-Arnold’s curveball as the first half wore on, a delivery that began in the channel between the left-back and left-centre, falling into space behind Dani Carvajal as he touched down.

Indeed, Alexander-Arnold, the scapegoat in Paris and Madrid before, went out of his way to remind him that his defensive failings are inarguably mitigated by what he brings on the ball. His crosses crashed against Núñez’s head; he could have had a penalty when Carvajal hit him in the back at 3-2 down.

Alexander-Arnold may not have been as cruelly exposed as in recent years, but the disgrace fell on Joe Gomez, a shadow of the man not only Jurgen Klopp but also England manager Gareth Southgate seemed forced to build. his defenses before his anterior cruciate ligament rupture. the fall of 2020. The 25-year-old was engrossed in the moment, grimace as Vinicius crossed the left corner of the box for Madrid’s first, a stunned onlooker as Eder Militao fired a Luka Modric free-kick for the team’s decisive third Spanish. Any coach would want to persevere with a player of Gomez’s skills, but given the difficulties he’d had in recent weeks, this was like throwing him into the lion’s den.

Hey he hesitated. Nobody with the Madrid shirt did it for an instance. In this way, they are the maximum representation of Carlo Ancelotti, who could, with a push, raise an eyebrow with curiosity at the news that life as we know it will end in the next 15 minutes. If the first half had been too complete for the Italian’s wishes, then Madrid clearly adapted, drawing Liverpool’s high line higher and higher before drilling it with precise passes. One side had learned to adapt to this particular competition, the other seemed to be running faster and faster towards a dead end. This was a cold-blooded evisceration by Madrid.

It brings with it the questions that Klopp might have hoped those wins over Everton and Newcastle would answer. Jude Bellingham alone is not going to fix this midfield. Van Dijk’s successor will have to be found sooner rather than later. Even those few who sit on the right side of the age curve have to be asked questions: Is this whole system a bit outdated?

The last time these two teams met, Liverpool left Paris bruised but not beaten. The consensus was that only minor tweaks were required for this team to take the small step between them and the top, nationally and on the continent. Nothing could seem further from the truth at this time. A season that spanned every game imaginable from August 2021 to May 2022 has been followed by one that is sure to end before the first buds of spring. That’s not even where the problem ends. This side has fallen off the top so precipitously that no one could believe it was the work of a single summer to get them back on track.

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