Liverpool return to Champions League action on Tuesday as they face LaLiga giants Real Madrid, with plenty of history between the two clubs. How much of a threat do they pose Jurgen Klopp‘s team?
The Reds and Real have faced off under each of the last three long-term managers at Anfield, with all those clashes somewhat representing where Liverpool were at that point.
Under Rafa Benitez, as one of the most solid and consistently capable sides in Europe, we hammered them across two legs. Under Brendan Rodgers, the Reds were good enough on the attack to get into European spots, but never truly among the elite in terms of all-round sides. They easily beat us in the group stages.
And, of course, under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool played Real Madrid in the final itself in Kyiv, a mark of how far the Reds had come but also when they were still on the journey towards becoming the finished product.
Several players have credited that defeat in 2018 as being the spark for realising they could go even further, for turning an almost team into a winning machine – but Real themselves have actually only two two trophies since that night in Kyiv: the Club World Cup which followed, and the 2020 LaLiga title.
So what lies ahead this time around, how are Los Blancos looking this season and how do the Reds get past them?
Who are Real Madrid
Only kidding. You probably know who the 13-time European Cup winners are. But how are they faring this season?
In Europe, they came through a group with ‘Gladbach, Shakhtar and Inter Milan, finishing top with the rest in that order. It was a very hit-and-miss run of results which could ultimately have seen them finish first or third on the final night, when they beat the Germans – who still went through because the other two drew.
In the last 16 they really struggled in the first leg to break down a 10-man Atalanta side – we know about them this year, both the good and the bad of the Italians – but were pretty comfortable in the second leg in truth, winning 3-1 for a 4-1 aggregate score.
Domestically, Real are very much the bridesmaids this term, having sat second behind city rivals Atletico for most of the campaign.
They closed the gap at the top to three points at the weekend, but they’ll still slip back down to third if Barcelona win their game in hand.
With nine games left, it would be a surprise if they won the league this term.
Still Zinedine Zidane, and he’s still playing his favourites.
One of the big criticisms of the Real legend has been that he has not incorporated new faces into the team, certainly not into his strongest preferred XI, and is relying on those he knows and trusts the most – but they are ageing as a group.
He’s still contracted through to the end of next season, but the usual rumblings of ‘will he walk’ are ongoing as he was under pressure earlier in the campaign and a few murmurings of discontent from players have also been heard.
Gareth Bale isn’t the only one to have taken issue with his selections, let’s put it that way – take Martin Odegaard’s mid-season loan to Arsenal, for example.
They remained a 4-3-3 side whenever possible for much of the campaign, with Zizou still turning to the Casemiro, Kroos and Modric midfield for the most part.
However, injuries and unavailability of players have had a major impact here, so there has also been a growing list of matches where other formations have been the norm.
Earlier in the campaign he used a diamond to good effect, Fede Valverde usually being the man who made it work with his running and ability to get into the final third, but more recently a back three has been in evidence.
A lack of attackers available saw Real play 3-5-2 several times – Benzema supported by Vinicius Jr was common – but at the weekend it was 3-4-3, with Asensio and Isco supporting the French striker.
They remain comfortable in possession, are good on the counter and a danger on set plays when Kroos is delivering, but as usual there is no single style which might be tacked onto Real under Zidane: they don’t always dominate, they aren’t a lightning-fast counter-pressing team, they aren’t capable of defending for long, long stretches for the most part.
Thibaut Courtois, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Karim Benzema.
That’s the spine, minus any centre-backs, and they remain the bedrock of this Real side.
The keeper has had himself a very good season, much-improved with consistency and often the man keeping Real in run-of-the-mill games until the attack clicks into gear.
We know all about their dominant midfield, but even by their standards Kroos has been impressive this term – and watch out for Casemiro’s forward surges and dangerous ability in the air.
Benzema does what he always does: hunts space, links play brilliantly, takes chances. Where they’d be without him and his 23 league-and-Europe goals this season is tough to imagine.
So how do the Reds win?
Firstly, pressure on the ball is important, but perhaps more so high upfield than in midfield – again, they remain capable of bypassing that press with some of the finest on-the-ball central players around.
The defence is rather more shaky and certainly isn’t accustomed to playing together, in this shape. They leave themselves exposed centrally, the wingers don’t track back all the way unless it’s Lucas Vazquez and from set plays the marking can be abysmal.
A clinical edge will of course be important, given Courtois’ ability, but patience is also a virtue in the two-legged environment.
Anything else to know?
One you probably already know by now: we won’t be playing the first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu – scene of Yossi Benayoun’s header in 2009 – but at the B team’s stadium, Real Madrid Castilla.
Their ground is the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano, so that’s where we’ll play.
Finally, Sergio Ramos is among those injured.