LIVERPOOL: 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 quarterfinals.
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 supporters at risk.
An independent report into the organizational failings published last week found UEFA to bear “primary responsibility” for failures which “almost led to disaster.”
To rub salt into the wounds of supporters, UEFA had initially tried to pin the blame on fans for arriving late despite tens of thousands having been held for hours outside the stadium.
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 have suffered a huge hangover from missing out on both the Premier League and Champions League by the finest of margins last season.
Jurgen Klopp’s men sit eighth in the Premier League but briefly turned back the clock to explode out of the blocks.
Nunez produced a magical finish to flick home Salah’s pass inside four minutes.
Thibaut Courtois broke Liverpool hearts in Paris with a string of stunning saves that earned the Belgian man-of-the-match.
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.
A loose touch from Courtois 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.
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.
Madrid still needed some desperate defending from Dani Carvajal and Militao to prevent Salah and Nunez restoring Liverpool’s two-goal lead in a goalmouth scramble.
But another calamitous error from one of the world’s leading goalkeepers gifted Madrid an equalizer when Alisson Becker’s attempted clearance bounced off Vinicius and into an unguarded net.
Only a brilliant last-ditch challenge from Andy Robertson prevented Rodrygo from putting Madrid in front before halftime.
However, Liverpool’s leaky defense was far more brittle 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.