Liverpool’s torrid season went from bad to worse on Tuesday as Jurgen Klopp’s side suffered a humiliating 5-2 defeat at home to Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Though the last-16 tie is only halfway done, even the most optimistic of Liverpool fans will find it hard to believe this struggling team can win by a four-goal margin at the Santiago Bernabéu in three weeks’ time.
But it was a night that started so well for Liverpool.
Coming into this match off back-to-back wins in the Premier League for the first time since December, Liverpool raced into an early two-goal lead thanks to Darwin Núñez’s sublime flick and an embarrassing error from Thibaut Courtois that allowed Mo Salah to pounce.
However, things promptly fell apart – as they have done on numerous occasions already this season.
Two goals from Vinícius Jr. before half time – the first a brilliant finish into the bottom corner and the second thanks to a calamitous error from Alisson – turned the game on its head.
Real Madrid came out firing in the second half, taking the lead for the first time inside the opening two minutes through Éder Militão’s header, before Karim Benzema’s brace ended the match as a contest.
These kinds of capitulations have haunted Liverpool since the season restarted following the World Cup, with similar collapses occurring against Brentford, Brighton and Wolves in the Premier League.
Klopp once again looked helpless on the sidelines as his team fell apart, only able to muster a wry, helpless smile as the cameras panned to him following Real Madrid’s fifth goal.
“The beginning was outstanding, it was us in a nutshell, it was perfect,” Klopp told BT Sport after the match. “It was exactly how we wanted to play, we caused them problems all over the place, we were really in the game with a super intense start.
“I think the whole first half was good, besides the [Real] goals. The first goal, we became slightly passive higher up the pitch and we were not chasing them where we had to chase them. This is a team that when you get passive, you get punished.
“The second goal is slapstick; should not happen, [but] can happen. The feeling at halftime was … we can change five times [substitutes], we can keep the rhythm, but then the first situation pretty much … it’s 3-2 and that doesn’t help against a team that is outstandingly good with counterattacks.
“You need to play a game like we played in the first half for the full 95 minutes – it’s possible, but you need to get the momentum back and with the 3-2 that was exactly the opposite. They became more confident and scored great goals.
“It’s a strange one. We lost 5-2 and we know that as well, but there’s a lot for me to take from this.”
It might only be the end of February, but Liverpool’s season – for all intents and purposes – is already over. The team is out of the League Cup and FA Cup, all but eliminated from the Champions League and languishing in eighth place in the Premier League.
The only remaining way the team could salvage the season would be to finish fourth in the Premier League and qualify for next season’s Champions League. It’s certainly not an impossible task, with Liverpool seven points behind Tottenham in fourth, but with two games in hand.
It has been a remarkable drop off for a team that was undoubtedly one of the best in the world last season and one that had a realistic chance of winning an unprecedented quadruple.
After chasing trophies on all four fronts, Liverpool ended up winning the FA Cup and League Cup, but agonizingly lost out by a point to Manchester City in the Premier League and lost 1-0 to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
Those two moral-sapping defeats have undoubtedly affected the team this season, while many fans have pointed to a lack of investment – in particular in the midfield – from the club’s Fenway Sports Group owners as a cause of the team’s failings.
There are numerous similarities to Klopp’s final season in charge at Borussia Dortmund, but there are no indications that the German will leave Anfield.
Klopp has regularly reiterated that he has no intention of quitting, while the owners and the fans certainly do not want to see the man who returned Liverpool to the top of English and European football leave anytime soon.
In the aftermath of the Tuesday’s game, Klopp insisted there was plenty he could take from the match and said his team can “learn from” the mistakes that led to the defeat.
His players will have to learn – and fast – if they are to have any hope of turning things around.