Around the corner from the Plaza Mayor, where Liverpool fans sat at cafes soaking up the sunshine, a queue of several hundred people stretched down the Calle De Atocha towards the striking neo-Gothic Church of Holy Cross on Wednesday afternoon. They had come to see the statue of San Judas Tadeo, which resides there, and to lay their hands upon it for good luck.
The church was packed with worshippers. Outside, street-sellers were hawking images of the saint. ‘Patron of impossible, lost and desperate causes,’ a sign next to some jewellery said. ‘Put the bracelet on your right hand, thinking of your request fervently.’
Wednesday is the favoured day to petition San Judas Tadeo, apparently. There did not appear to be any Liverpool supporters in the line. It was hard not to feel they were missing a trick.
After all, the talk for the last three weeks had been about lost causes. It had been about how Liverpool needed a miracle at the Estadio Bernabeu to overcome the 5-2 deficit from their Champions League round of 16 first leg thrashing at Anfield.
The idea of scoring four at the home of the holders felt like an impossible task even if Liverpool had the memory of past shocks in this competition to fuel their hopes.
Karim Benzema scored the only goal of the game as his late second-half strike put the tie out of reach for Liverpool
Real Madrid celebrated safe passage through to the Champions League quarter-finals thanks to a simple finish from their star striker (left)
Real Madrid continue their quest to retain the Champions League after knocking Liverpool out of the competition on Wednesday
And so there was much reminiscing about Istanbul and the miracle that happened there in 2005, the comeback from three goals down against AC Milan, the astonishing, other-worldly save from Jerzy Dudek late in the game that denied Andriy Shevchenko, the feeling that you sometimes get at sporting events that it was written in the stars that Liverpool would win that night.
There was the miracle of Anfield on May 7, 2019, too, the night when Liverpool put four goals past Lionel Messi and Barcelona in the second leg of a Champions League semi-final to overhaul a 3-0 deficit from the first leg. Remember the magic that crackled round the stadium that night, too, the way Trent Alexander-Arnold tricked the Barcelona defence by pretending to walk away from a corner kick before the decisive goal. Liverpool invoked just about every football miracle they could possibly think of.
None of it mattered in the end, neither San Judas Tadeo and his lost causes, nor all those memories of past deliverance. This was not one of those nights. All the greatest comebacks in the competition have been achieved by the team who is playing at home in the second leg and Liverpool could never quite summon the intensity they needed at the Bernabeu. Their chances of victory drifted away on the breeze of a balmy evening.
Maybe their requests weren’t fervent enough. More pertinently, Madrid were just too good. Too good at Anfield and too good last night. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Eduardo Camavinga ran midfield last night and their endless class and elegance kept Liverpool at arm’s length. Liverpool had chances but they never really laid a glove on their opponents. When Karim Benzema prodded in the night’s only goal 12 minutes from time to put the tie out of reach at 6-2 on aggregate, it was what Madrid deserved.
Maybe Liverpool have used up their share of miracles these past 20 years. Now all that is left is the grim struggle to make the Premier League’s top four and try and qualify for the Champions League next season. They are six points behind Spurs, who occupy the last of those places, so it is not going to be easy. For Madrid, another shot at winning yet another Champions League trophy beckons.
Jurgen Klopp had said Liverpool had a one in a hundred chance of making it through to the last eight and If the odds were stacked against them anyway, they lengthened even more when captain Jordan Henderson fell ill and did not make the journey to Madrid. Stefan Bajcetic, who has provided so much vitality when more established stars have struggled this season, was also ruled out with a stress fracture. James Milner and Fabinho, warhorses of many campaigns, started instead.
Liverpool got the first sniff of a chance seven minutes into the game when Antonio Rudiger let a loose pass from Dani Carvajal sail over his head and into the path of Mo Salah. Salah’s first surge towards goal was baulked by a defender but then the Egypt forward played Darwin Nunez in. Nunez got his shot on target but Thibault Courtois blocked it with his legs and it rebounded to safety.
It was Madrid, though, who looked the better team in the opening 20 minutes and Liverpool were grateful to Alisson for a magnificent reaction save that denied Vinicius Jr from point-blank range. Diogo Jota should have done better with a volley he mishit but Madrid made clearer chances that were spurned by Karim Benzema. A shot from Eduardo Camavinga from outside the box beat Alisson but cannoned back off the face of the bar.
When a breakthrough did not come, though, the home fans grew restless. Liverpool sensed the change in mood and nearly took the lead 12 minutes before half time. Nunez, who had just directed a free header straight at Courtois, cut in from the left and curled a shot towards the far corner. It was arrowing inside the post until the Belgium goalkeeper got down quickly to his left and tipped the ball round the upright.
Madrid should have put the tie out of reach seven minutes into the second half when Benzema played Federico Valverde in behind the Liverpool defence but he could only prod his shot tamely at Alisson. He did better midway through the half when he rose to meet a cross from Luka Modric but his header just cleared the crossbar.
Madrid began to turn on the style now as safety got closer. Vinicius Jr was superb again on the left and 20 minutes from the end, he cut in from the left and drilled a precise pass into Benzema on the edge of the box. The ball came at him at pace and in a tight area but Benzema controlled it flawlessly and fizzed a shot just too high.
Liverpool spent as much time trying to stop Madrid’s advantage increasing as they did trying to reduce it. Carlo Ancelotti’s team were just too good, too clever, too dangerous, to give Liverpool anything more than the briefest glimpse of a comeback. Benzema’s goal, after a pass from Vinicius Jr, merely confirmed the inevitable. Liverpool went out of the competition without drawing blood.
Little did those Liverpool supporters enjoying the afternoon sun in the Plaza Mayor know it but, sadly, sitting a few hundred yards from the statue of San Judas Tadeo was the closest they got to a miracle all day.
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