Probably the tie of this round, Real Madrid against Liverpool pits two of the most successful teams in Europe against each other for the first time since the boys from Merseyside beat Los Merengues 1-0 in the 1981 European Cup final.
At the end of 2008 Liverpool were flying high at the top of the Premier League, while Real Madrid were miles behind Barcelona in La Liga and suffered two defeats at the hands of their European rivals Juventus in the Champions League. Fast forward to 25 February 2009 and the stats tell you that the Reds now trail Manchester United by 7 points while Real Madrid have won 9 consecutive matches and have managed to close the gap to 7 points and put doubts in the minds of Barcelona fans that they will win the league so easily. After hitting 6 past Real Betis at the weekend, Real couldn’t feel more confident.
Nevertheless, let’s not forget that Rafa Benitez has got Liverpool to two Champions League finals, winning one with Djimi Traore in the team. He knows Real Madrid inside out from his time there as a youth coach. Rafa knows more about Spanish football than Real could possibly know about the English game. His analytical preparation and tactics make him the most fearsome of cup coaches. I may sound like I am talking up Rafa Benitez like Indiana Jones does for Marcus Brody in the Last Crusade. Therefore, I hope Rafa doesn’t mistakenly walk into the back of a Nazi truck (which metaphorically means tinker his team into a formation/line-up in hope that he can further boost his credentials as a super tactician).
My point is, Liverpool have beaten the best of Europe over the past few years and will feel confident taking on Real Madrid, especially now baby G has been confirmed in the match squad, even if only one of his legs is working.
This is not exactly the most ground-breaking insight into the way Liverpool play but I will repeat it anyway – Gerrard is crucial to Liverpool winning anything. He is their talisman, creator and scorer of important goals and alongside Fernando Torres, the best player in the team. Having just returned from a short holiday in Spain where I talked with a few futbol fans, I can inform readers that Steven Gerard is a highly respected player over there. Undoubtedly his presence on the pitch for Liverpool will instill some fear into the Real team. If not then there is always Dirk Kuyt’s face.
The Legend of Raul
Raul could be referred to as the Steven Gerrard of Real Madrid but that would be tainting the reputation of the man that has recently become Los Merengues’ highest EVER goalscorer. He also happens to be the Champions League top goalscorer EVER with a phenomenal record of 64 goals in 127 matches, 4 more than his horse-headed team mate.
Raul has been back to his top form this season, his 19 goals in 23 games compensating for the loss of Ruud Van Nistelrooy to a freak show jumping accident. Being the only player to have scored in two different Champions League finals, this man knows what the competition is all about. If Real Madrid play well over the two legs, he will have made a crucial contribution.
My personal favourite of all Raul’s goals this season has to be this peach against Zenit St.Petersburg in the Champions’ League group stage.
Mentally and physically crushed under Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea regime, Arjen Robben has finally realised the quality at Real Madrid which I never doubted he possessed. He is now Los Merengues’ most potent attacking force, terrorising opposition defences down the left hand side or cutting in from the right, as he did to great effect with a recent winner against Villarreal. Liverpool’s full backs are the weakest area of their team and I fully expect Robben to give them a torrid time at the Bernabeu.
I hate to endorse anything that Alex Ferguson has to say but his criticism of Real Madrid being too slow is probably an accurate one. Van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder are not exactly slow but are not the type of players to inject some direct dribbling into a game. If Real go into the second leg playing on the counter, this could prove problematic. Especially considering my next point…
Lack of striking options
Raul is on form and Real have a plethora of scorers in their midfield, with the impressive Gonzalo Higuain providing a threat either from the right wing or up front. Nevertheless, with Van Nistelrooy being injured, Real Madrid’s coaching staff may rue the decision to not register Jan Klaas Huntelaar for the Champions League knock-out stages. In tight games such as those we will likely see between Real Madrid and Liverpool, a poacher can make the difference. Ramos, like his predecessor, doesn’t seem to fancy Javier Saviola (who has never been a poacher anyway) so I am not sure where the options lie.
On the other hand, Liverpool could be accused of suffering the same lack of strength in depth up front. Kuyt has scored some decisive goals in important matches this season but will Ngog and El Zhar be able to do the business should Torres get injured? I think not.
Defensive Assessments - Ramos discipline and the new Makelele
Even the most ardent Real Madrid supporter will tell you that their team hasn’t been that impressive or convincing so far under Juande Ramos. But what he will tell you is that the former Spurs manager has brought discipline, organisation and stubbornness to the side which has allowed them to win nine La Liga games in a row, conceding only two along the way.
The back four of Sergio Ramos, Fabio Cannavaro, Pepe and Gabriel Heinze is finally looking as impressive as the names do on paper. As always, Iker Casillas will provide world class goal keeping and leadership. However, we know good defending depends on the rest of the team doing their part and in Lassana Diarra and Fernando Gago, Real have two midfielders who are able to protect their defence while possessing the highest technical qualities and ability to distribute ably. Comparisons with Liverpool’s Mascherano-Alonso duo are understandable but I think Real have the better two.
The decision to register Diarra for the Champions League over Huntelaar may well be justified should Real progress. I don’t like the dolphin-headed little bastard but he is a world-class player (better than Makelele) that will thrive on the big stage.
Renowned for their tightness under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool’s defensive record has been some-what surprising this season. They have only managed to keep one clean sheet in the past 7 games. The man named by the Football Guy as the Son of Rafa or old man/young man will be called upon and required to meet the high standards of his counterpart at the other end.
I nevertheless expect Liverpool to get ship shape for the ties against Real. There is certainly more pressure on them to come out in the league and Rafa knows the art of two-legged Champions League ties, especially when away from home first.
This is an extremely difficult tie to call, as I don’t think recent form will bear too much on how this encounter plays out. Both clubs have respect for each other but will also be quietly confident. Juande Ramos pitting his wits against Rafa Benitez will be an interesting tete-a-tete of tactical nous represented by funny hand signals.
The fact that the second leg is at Anfield could prove decisive and therefore I will predict that Liverpool will edge this one. A Torres away goal at the Bernabeu is so on the cards that I won’t even claim I said so when it happens.
Tags: Alonso, Anfield, Bernabeu, Cannavaro, Casillas, champions league predictions, Diarra, Gago, Gerrard, Higuain, Huntelaar, Juande Ramos, Liverpool, Mascherano, prediction, Rafa Benitez, Raul, Real Madrid, Real Madrid-Liverpool, Reina, Robben, Sergio Ramos, Sneijder, Torres, Van der Vaart