For their 37th match of a season of exhausting schedules, Real Madrid went to Anfield with their captain, Karim Benzema, struggling for fitness.
Their best launcher of counter-attacks, Toni Kroos, was too unwell with gastroenteritis to board Monday's plane to Merseyside with his teammates. Neither of their squad’s most expensive footballers, Eden Hazard (out of form) or Aurelien Tchouameni (ill) were in the starting line-up.
Madrid were also without their regular left back, the injured Ferland Mendy, to mark Mohamed Salah. They then lost his replacement, David Alaba to a thigh problem with two-thirds of the first leg of their Champions League tie against Liverpool still to play. Madrid were losing 2-0 after 14 minutes.
What happened in the next 51 minutes was astounding. But perhaps it ought not to have been. The wisest forecaster of what would have been a breathtaking turnaround even if it hadn’t happened at Anfield, a genuine European fortress, was probably Jurgen Klopp.
The day before his side gave up their two-goal lead for a 5-2 defeat, Klopp had told reporters: “Real Madrid don’t lose confidence. I don’t think you make this team panic.”
Not even when their goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, man of the match when Liverpool lost the Champions League final to Madrid last May, makes the sort of unforced error, the ball bobbling off his knee, that gifted Salah Liverpool’s second goal. Not even when Madrid escaped conceding another in the first half thanks only to a desperate goalline clearance from Eder Militao.
So habitual is the so-called ‘remontada’, the comeback, for Madrid in Europe there’s a temptation to imagine they fall behind as part of a deliberate tease, a taunt aimed at upstarts like Paris Saint-Germain or giants of the big-spending Premier League.
In the last 12 months, Madrid have trailed PSG and Manchester City by the same margin that they fell behind to Liverpool and won. They were losing to Chelsea in last season’s quarter-final until the 80th minute of the second leg. And that tie was probably the smoothest of their extraordinary rollercoaster ride to a 14th European Cup.
Liverpool v Real Madrid player ratings
City held an aggregate two-goal advantage until the 180th minute of the semi; PSG had been leading Madrid 2-0 into the last half-hour of the last-16 tie, the cue for some uncertain goalkeeping from the team who were ahead, for a Luka Modric masterclass, for some quick thinking by Vinicius Junior and for goals from Benzema.
You could repeat all those descriptions for what happened at Anfield on Tuesday. A goalkeeping mishap by Alisson led to Vinicius making it 2-2. Benzema’s second-half brace took his tally of goals to 12 from his last six matches in Champions League knockouts. Madrid coach Ancelotti again praised “the veterans" Modric and Benzema - 37 and 35 years old respectively - for "helping us keep cool heads”.
Ancelotti admitted that, on the touchline, he had leaned on memories of Madrid’s remarkable impulse for recovery after Salah capitalised on Courtois’ error. “I thought back a bit to the Manchester City semi-final when we were 2-0 down, and that hopefully the same thing could happen,” said Ancelotti. “It turned out even better. Little by little we established control. I will always have confidence in the quality we have.”
A more distant memory will flit into Ancelotti’s mind in the three weeks leading up to the Madrid leg. History may have been made - Liverpool’s heaviest European defeat ever at Anfield; the biggest winning margin of any Champions League match where the victors had trailed 2-0 - but the Italian’s own personal history offers a powerful warning against any complacency.
Ancelotti was the AC Milan coach when, in Istanbul in 2005, he welcomed his players in at half-time of a European Cup final against Liverpool 3-0 up. Milan went on to concede three second-half goals and lost on penalties.
“We have an advantage but we have to manage the second leg well,” said Ancelotti. “Liverpool are a very competitive team and they hurt us at the beginning. The tie is not over.”
The work of persuading Liverpool’s players, especially those in a shredded defence and a sagging midfield, that the tie still has life will still be a formidable task for Klopp, a manager overseeing the poorest season of his eight in charge.
The collapse against Madrid - “we gave all five goals away,” said Klopp - follows 3-0 losses since the new year against Brighton and Wolverhampton Wanderers and a 3-1 defeat to Brentford. It bookends a Champions League campaign that began with a 4-1 loss to Napoli.
Liverpool sit eighth, outside the Uefa qualifying positions, in the Premier League. Anfield may have a very long wait for its next European fixture and a chance to take away the bitter taste of a humiliation.