LIVERPOOL, England — Real Madrid left Liverpool on the brink of Champions League elimination after fighting back from a two-goal deficit to win 5-2 in a classic game at Anfield.
Reigning European champions Real Madrid had fallen 2-0 down inside 14 minutes after goals from Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah. But two Vinicius Junior goals hauled the Spanish side level before half-time and Real Madrid pulled clear in the second-half with a Eder Militao header and two strikes from Karim Benzema.
This is a result that will sit high even in Real Madrid’s illustrious hall of fame — but it will also be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons for Liverpool, who suffered their biggest-ever Champions League defeat, conceding five goals for their first time in the competition’s history.
1. Real Madrid humiliate Liverpool in a Champions League classic
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was right to speak in tones of reverence about Real Madrid prior to this Champions League tie. He had said that no other team could win quite like Real when the odds are stacked against them, and he was proved right as the reigning European champions stunned his team at Anfield on Tuesday.
It had looked like being another historic Champions League night for Liverpool when they raced into a 2-0 lead inside 14 minutes. Having made Anfield such a fortress in Europe over the years, Liverpool seemed odds-on for a decisive first-leg win.
But Real are unlike any other team. The vast majority of teams would have crumbled at 2-0 down, but unlike Barcelona in 2019 — who saw a 3-0 semifinal first-leg lead blown away in a 4-0 defeat here — Real turned a lost cause into a winning one to inflict Liverpool’s biggest-ever Champions League loss.
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At 2-0 down, Real didn’t let panic set in. They just calmly held their nerve, knowing that chances would come to claw their way back into the game. Just like last season, when they overturned similarly bleak situations against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, Real backed their quality and experience, and it paid off in spectacular fashion.
Vinicius Junior’s two goals in the 21st and 26th minutes, hauled them level before Eder Militao headed Real into the lead on 47 minutes. And from that point on, there was no looking back. Two more goals from Karim Benzema sealed a 5-2 win to put Real in command ahead of the second-leg in Madrid next month.
In years to come, this win will still sting for Liverpool as much as it will be remembered in Madrid. So many teams have seen their European hopes crushed at a raucous Anfield over the years, but this Real Madrid team is made of sterner stuff and they showed that Anfield isn’t quite so scary after all.
2. Vini Jr. proves his credentials as a superstar
Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford might just have some competition for the title of the hottest player in Europe right now from Vinicius Junior.
The Real Madrid winger is certainly the biggest thorn in Liverpool’s side having taken his tally against them to five goals in five games. No player has scored more goals against Liverpool in the Champions League than Vinicius Junior, who also scored the winner in Real’s 1-0 victory against Liverpool team in last season’s Champions League final in Paris.
Rashford’s hot streak at Manchester United — with 16 goals in 17 games since the World Cup — has quite rightly led to him being acclaimed as the best forward in the game at this moment in time. But Vini Jr.’s performance at Anfield was sensational and, with it being on the Champions League stage, it was arguably more impressive than anything Rashford has managed during his recent run.
Vini Jr. now has 18 goals in 35 games for Real Madrid this season after becoming the youngest player to score twice against Liverpool in a European game at Anfield since Johan Cruyff for Ajax in 1966.
Vinicius Junior celebrates after scoring Real Madrid’s second goal in the first leg of UEFA Champions League round of 16 leg against Liverpool at Anfield on February 21, 2023 in Liverpool, England. James Gill/Danehouse/Getty Images
In this game, he was devastating down Real left, scoring twice in the first-half to cancel out Liverpool’s early 2-0 lead. He then continued his destructive performance by playing a key role in subsequent goals for Eder Militao and Karim Benzema.
Considering all of the off-field challenges that Vini Jr. continues to face in Spain following a series of racist incidents against him, his ability to produce such high quality performance is a testament to the 22-year-old’s courage and resolve.
But he is also a world-class footballer, and nobody is playing better than he is.
3. Liverpool’s right-side weakness in defence to blame
When Liverpool were torn apart in a 4-1 defeat against Napoli in the group stage, the Serie A leaders won by targeting Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez on the right side of Liverpool’s defence.
Having done the same to win the Champions League final in Paris last year, it was no surprise that Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti used the same tactic at Anfield, with Vinicius Junior repeatedly tormenting both Liverpool defenders. The result on Tuesday was another loss by three goals, equaling Liverpool’s largest losing margin in the Champions League, albeit by conceding a club-record five goals in the competition.
Quite simply, Europe’s best coaches know exactly where Liverpool’s biggest weakness lies: the right side of their defence.
Real’s first three goals at Anfield came directly from that side of the pitch, with Alexander-Arnold constantly abandoning his defensive duties to leave Gomez isolated against the pace and strength of Vini Jr.
Gomez is a confidence player. He only seems to have highs or lows, with nothing in between, and this was a low night. His back-pass to goalkeeper Alisson Becker, when under pressure from Vini Jr., led to Alisson kicking the ball against the Vini Jr. and into the net. With the Real Madrid forward on his shoulder, Gomez should have gone safety first and cleared for a throw-in.
And early in the second-half, a Gomez foul on the Real forward — after Alexander-Arnold had stood and watched like a statue — led to the free-kick from which Eder Militao headed Real in front for the first time in the game.
It was one of those nightmare games for Liverpool’s defenders and by the time Karim Benzema scored Real’s fourth with a shot which deflected in off Gomez, you could only feel sorry for the embattled centre-half.
Best and worst performers
Best: Vinicius Junior, Real Madrid
Outstanding match-winning performance from the Real forward. Five goals in five games against Liverpool now.
Best: Luka Modric, Real Madrid
Is he really 37-years-old? The Real midfielder controlled the game and gave a masterclass of calm composure when his team fell 2-0 down early in the game.
Best: Eder Militao, Real Madrid
A rock at the back for Real and scored a big goal early in the second-half to put his team ahead.
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson can’t make the save as Vinicius Junior scores Real Madrid’s first goal on Tuesday in the UEFA Champions League. Michael Zemanek/DeFodi Images via Getty Images
Worst: Joe Gomez, Liverpool
Just couldn’t cope with Vinicius Junior. The Liverpool defender should have been taken off at half-time to take him out of the firing line.
Worst: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool
No longer the attacking outlet that struck fear into opponents, so his defensive shortcomings are now a problem for Liverpool.
Worst: Jordan Henderson, Liverpool
Outrun and outclassed by Real Madrid’s majestic midfielders. A great servant, but past his best at this level.
Highlights and notable moments
This match got off to a rip-roaring start and never let go.
Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez scored in just the fourth minute to set the powder keg of this round-of-16 Champions league match alight, and he did it in style.
DARWIN NÚÑEZ WITH AN AUDACIOUS FINISH. 🤯
Liverpool stun Real Madrid inside 4 minutes. 🔴 pic.twitter.com/CPemMQ06lp
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 21, 2023
Then it was Mohamed Salah’s turn to score another for Liverpool.
If Nunez’s was an example of individual brilliance in execution, this goal was quite the opposite as Salah capitalised on a strange Thibaut Courtois mistake where the goalkeeper whiffed on dribbling with his feet.
¡Goooooooooool del Liverpool! 🔥
Increíble error grosero de Thibaut Courtois que le regala el segundo a Salah. ¿Ese es el mejor del mundo? 😳@lfc 2-0 @realmadrid#TUChampions | #UCL | #Liverpool | #RealMadrid
🔴 EN VIVO
📺 TUDN y @univision
📲👉 https://t.co/xeicOUk5tw pic.twitter.com/q6sXzpghTa
— TUDN USA (@TUDNUSA) February 21, 2023
Just as Liverpool appeared to be cruising in front of their fans at Anfield, Vinícius Júnior scored a sensational goal from long range to pull one back for Real Madrid.
VINI JR. CREATES SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING. 💥 pic.twitter.com/37B1e2Xiw4
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 21, 2023
The weirdness of this match continued on.
Following the lead of Courtois on the opposite end, Alisson also made a mistake, attempting to punt the ball into an on-running Vini Jr., who unwittingly knocked the ball back inside Alisson’s net.
¡Gooooooooool del Real Madrid! 🔥
Alisson le regresa a Courtois su error grosero y estamos igual que como empezamos. 😱@lfc 2-2 @realmadrid#TUChampions | #UCL | #Liverpool | #RealMadrid
🔴 EN VIVO
📺 TUDN y @univision
📲👉 https://t.co/xeicOUk5tw pic.twitter.com/mLVA8baNXO
— TUDN USA (@TUDNUSA) February 21, 2023
Phew — that was a lot. And yet, there were still another three goals from Real Madrid to make the final result of 5-2.
To go from a 2-0 deficit to a 5-2 win is something, and the first four goals of the match, with all of their electricity before Real Madrid ran away with the win, served as the clear highlights.
After the match: What the managers and players said
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti on the result: “It wasn’t easy, especially when looking at how the game went. We didn’t lose our confidence and little by little we took command of the game. We defended better while always being efficient up front. Vinicius played an incredible game. The first leg has gone well and we have to be calm — we know we will have to fight and suffer in the next return leg just as we did today.”
Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema on the result: “We showed personality, scored goals. We want this Champions League. It was a beautiful game. We didn’t start well. After 15 minutes, we saw Real Madrid. Football is difficult always. They started the game better than us, backed by the support of their fans. We knew we had to do more and we did it until the end.”
Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on the result: “This is not the Liverpool of last season to be honest. It’s more vulnerable. We can’t relax — we are one of the favourites to win [the Champions League] but there are also other teams. We will see how far we can go.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp on facing Real Madrid again in the second leg: “We will go there, we will play a football game. It’s not the best start and the best basis for it — we didn’t create that tonight. Obviously everyone saw tonight how good they are on the counterattack if we have to score goals there. In their own stadium, each single counterattack can be the decider. So it will be a massive challenge, but there’s time. Until then we have to play in the Premier League, we have to recover and make sure we take the right things from this game and the rest we have to learn from as well.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
This is the first time Liverpool have conceded five goals in a Champions League match. This is the second time Liverpool have conceded five goals in a European cup game after a 5-1 loss to Ajax in the 1966-67 European Cup.
Real Madrid are the first team Opta has on record (since 2003-04) to score five goals in a UEFA Champions League match despite having fewer than 10 shots in the match. (Real Madrid had nine shots.)
Vinícius Júnior breaks a tie with Karim Benzema for the most goals scored for the club in all competitions this season, 18. He also became the leading goal scorer against Liverpool in Champions League with five goals.
Vinícius Júnior is the second-youngest visiting player to score two goals at Anfield against Liverpool in major European competition after Johan Cruyff.
Karim Benzema has 11 goals in 11 games since after the World Cup break. By comparison, he scored six goals in his 12 games pre-World Cup this season.
Darwin Núñez has scored in four straight UEFA Champions League knockout stage games dating back to last season — he’s only ever failed to score in one Champions League knockout match in which he’s played.
Mohamed Salah has scored in a career-high six consecutive Champions League matches. He is the top scorer in the Champions League this season with eight goals. He ties Didier Drogba for the 12th-most goals in Champions League history (44).
Mohamed Salah’s 10 goal contributions (eight goals, two assists) in the Champions League this season are tied with Kylian Mbappé (seven goals, three assists) for the most by any player.
Stefan Bajcetic became the youngest player (18 years, 122 days) to start a Champions League match for Liverpool.
Real Madrid are the only Spanish club in this Champions league knockout stage, the fewest from Spain since 1998-99, which also had one.
Liverpool: The Reds resume their Premier League campaign when they visit Crystal Palace on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 2:45 p.m. ET. The second leg against Real Madrid will take place in Spain on Wednesday, March 15 at 4 p.m. ET.
Real Madrid: Los Blancos resume their LaLiga campaign against Atletico Madrid on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 12:30 p.m. ET (stream live on ESPN+). Then, Real Madrid host Barcelona in the first leg of the Spanish Copa del Rey on Thursday, March 2 (stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET). Real Madrid host Liverpool for the second leg of the Champions League round-of-16 tie on Wednesday, March 15.