LONDON (AFP): Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema scored twice as Real Madrid produced another stunning Champions League fightback from 2-0 down to thrash Liverpool 5-2 in the first leg of their last 16 tie at Anfield on Tuesday.
Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah had given the hosts a perfect start in a repeat of last season’s Champions League final.
But Vinicius struck twice to level by half-time and, after Eder Militao had given Carlo Ancelotti’s men the lead, Benzema’s double put the holders well on the way to the quarter-finals.
“We suffered a lot early on, you can’t start games like that, but fortunately the team had a cool head,” said Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti.
“Up front today we were very efficient. Every time we broke the press of Liverpool we were able to create chances.”
Defeat compounds a disastrous season for Liverpool after coming so close to an unprecedented quadruple of trophies last year.
Jurgen Klopp’s men are languishing in eighth in the Premier League and now appear to have no realistic chance of silverware this season.
“I think Carlo thinks the tie is over and I think it is too in the moment,” said Klopp. “In three weeks we will get to the game and take our chances.
“We go there and try to win the game. Whether it is possible, I don’t know, but we will try.”
– UEFA protest –
Madrid’s 1-0 victory when the sides met in Paris last May was overshadowed by chaotic scenes outside the Stade de France that put the lives of fans at risk.
The Liverpool support responded by drowning out the Champions League anthem with a chorus of boos, while a series of banners in the Kop stand took aim at UEFA and the French authorities.
Once the action got underway, the players produced the spectacle expected of a clash between two clubs with a combined 20 European Cups.
Liverpool briefly turned back the clock to some of their best nights under Klopp to explode out of the blocks.
Nunez produced a magical finish to flick home Salah’s pass inside four minutes.
Madrid overcame two-goal deficits to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City on their road to a 14th European Cup last season and were forced to do so again by their normally solid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
A loose touch from the Belgian handed Salah Liverpool’s second on a plate as the Egyptian became the Reds’ all-time top goalscorer in European competition with 42.
But the defending champions again showed remarkable powers of recovery to turn the tie around in little over 30 minutes of play.
“Obviously we didn’t expect to start like we did but at 2-0 down I thought about the City game in last year’s semi-final in the hope that we could do the same,” added Ancelotti.
“It turned out even better.”
Vinicius was the match-winner in last season’s final and now has five goals in four appearances against Liverpool.
The Brazilian flashed a shot into the far corner to get the comeback started on 21 minutes.
Another calamitous error from one of the world’s leading goalkeepers gifted Madrid an equaliser when Alisson Becker’s attempted clearance bounced off Vinicius and into an unguarded net.
Liverpool’s leaky defence was breached again at the start of the second period as Militao was afforded a free header to turn in Luka Modric’s free-kick.
Fortune was also on the side of the Spanish giants for the fourth goal as Benzema’s shot deflected off Joe Gomez to leave Alisson stranded.
There was nothing lucky about the visitors’ fifth as a clinical team move cut Liverpool to pieces.
Modric burst through midfield and fed Vinicius, who teed up Benzema to coolly round Alisson and slot into the top corner.
The sides meet again on March 15, but the second leg now appears little more than a formality on a night Madrid showed why they remain the kings of Europe.