Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool (6-2 on aggregate) (Benzema 78′)

BERNABEU — Real Madrid march on, or saunter to be more accurate and better reflect the tone of the evening. Liverpool return to the domestic setting to put the pieces of their broken season together in a way they hope returns them to Europe’s top tier next season.

Since they face trips to Manchester City and Chelsea before hosting Arsenal in their first three games in April following the international break, Liverpool will know soon enough where they stand. For all that, what the point may be of claiming a top-four spot is moot after watching Real ease into the quarter-finals. The age of heavy metal football is over at Anfield, and the shape and texture of what might replace it is yet to reveal itself.

Liverpool made Madrid run a bit, but jeopardy was never remotely part of this show. At least they found a way to dull for the most part the rapacious appetite of Vinicius Junior. The Brazilian bullet was actually on his arse having stood on the ball when he squared for Karim Benzema to slot the only goal of a tepid game.

Ultimately the result at Anfield altered the dynamic making this less a contest of consequence for Madrid and more a measure of how the reigning European champions might counter the rampant threat of Manchester City as Europe’s showpiece rolls into April. Football’s infatuation with Erling Haaland grows by the hour. Arrivals at Madrid airport are already assailed by the Norwegian wrecking ball as he gazes down from outsized posters flogging Breitling watches.

In the minds of Madridista’s Haaland is merely killing time at City until the stadium revamp is finished or 35-year-old Benzema calls it a day. Whichever comes first will inevitably lead to a debut in white. The courtship is obvious and follows a galactico model stretching back to Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano in the infancy of the European Cup. Madrid expect to attract the best and the next ticket seller accepts his destiny is to end up at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The only serious threat to that historic arrangement is the economic power of the Premier League. The pandemic exposed the financial overreach of Real Madrid’s principal dance partner Barcelona in trying to keep up. Though Barcelona brazenly fashioned an accounting response that allowed them to sign players in the summer, a reckoning might still be coming to further erode La Liga’s competitive depth.

You can see a time when the reality of the Premier League’s omnipotence cuts the Real supply line but we are not there yet. The Madrid aura is still a powerful thing reinforced of course by nights like Anfield three weeks ago when Liverpool shrank before it. Jurgen Klopp spoke about giving it a go even if there were only a one per cent chance, an underdog sentiment which as much as the defeat to Bournemouth on Saturday downgrades the significance of the 7-0 beating of Manchester United.

The idea of James Milner, or at least what James Milner was, exceeds the actuality. That Liverpool saw him as the solution in a must-win big affair reflects the lack of quality in the centre, a part of the pitch where Madrid are strong. Luka Modric floats, Toni Kroos controls the tempo and Eduardo Camavinga does enough running for the elders. And in front of them, Vinicius Jr, Benzema and Federico Valverde exude menace.

Real coach Carlo Ancelotti argued that from a psychological point of view the match was more complex for his side. What he meant had little to do with the mental loading upon his players, rather that Liverpool had little to think about beyond the one option available to them. Attack. And as Klopp observed the first goal had to be Liverpool’s.

They did create openings, but lacked the conviction to make much of them. Mo Salah got around the back of Nacho, Darwin Nunez had the legs of the entire back line. The crosses would have been dangerous had the build-up been the result of structured movements and planning instead of speculative probings.

Nunez did bring a decent save from Thibaut Courtois with a rasping shot curled in from the left. Cody Gakpo also stung the keeper’s hands in the opening half, but again from distance. Madrid seemed capable of anything on the counter and had Benzema been more careful might have put the game out of Liverpool’s reach much earlier instead of giving the linesman’s flag a busy night.

Friday’s draw inevitably revolves around Madrid and City, the old order versus the arrivistes. Bayern Munich and Napoli can’t be discounted of course but neither carry the planetary weight of the alphas being drawn inexorably towards each other.

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