Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Champions League Preview: Real Madrid vs. Liverpool

Real Madrid and Liverpool have had the most contrasting of fortunes throughout the season so far. Los Blancos could barely string two decent performances together in the early parts of the campaign, while the Reds were cruising along nicely, seemingly on their way to their first league title in almost two decades.

But the two sides have literally swapped places since the turn of the year, so much so that they have remarkably somehow found themselves in an identical position in their own domestic leagues, both occupying second spot in the table and trailing their respective leaders by exactly seven points.

However, at this point in time, it would appear that the Spaniards are the more satisfied of the two hunters.

Real Madrid have now won nine games in succession, scoring 22 goals in the process and leaking just two. Their wretched early-season form has come as a blessing in disguise, as the players simultaneously but quietly clicked into gear just at the right moment while avoiding being slapped with the cursed favourites tag.

Although the Merengues are hitting peak form in the Primera Division, it is the Champions League where they really need to chain together a flawless run if they are to go far. But they still need to take things one step at a time, starting with the first knock-out phase.

Los Blancos will attempt to get past the round of 16 for the first time in five years. The last four seasons have all ended in disaster at this stage of the competition, despite numerous signs of promise and success. What’s even more frustrating is that they’ve always been eliminated by the narrowest of margins: a 2-1 aggregate loss to Juventus in 2005, 1-0 to Arsenal in 2006, exiting on the away-goal rule to Bayern the following year, and 2-1 defeats in each leg to Roma last term.

While their form will give the team and the Bernabeu faithful an immense burst of confidence, it will also increase the pressure on the players significantly to succeed, considering there wasn’t much hope for the side just two months ago. Back then, a last-16 meeting with Liverpool would have seemed like a lost cause.

But the tables have been turned dramatically and the English giants could not have picked a worse time for the Champions League to resume. They have hit, without doubt, their worst patch of form this season, winning just three games in their last nine outings in all competitions.

But amazingly, they have not lost a match in regulation time since early November, when they crashed to a 4-2 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup, just 11 days after losing to the same team in the Barclays Premier League. It remains their only defeat in the league this term, but the ten draws that they have accrued have proven to be their downfall.

While stalemates are rarely beneficial in league play, it can be extremely helpful when it comes to two-legged cup tournaments. Having made the semi-finals of the Champions League three times in the past four years, much of their success can be attributed to their ability to grind out a result when they needed it most; drawing 1-1 with Arsenal in the first leg of last season’s quarter-finals before romping to a 4-2 second leg win; a 1-1 aggregate draw with Chelsea in the semi-finals the year before, which enabled them to win on penalties and the triumphant 2004/05 campaign when they held Juventus and Chelsea to scoreless draws in the away legs of the quarters and semis but emerged victorious at home by the slimmest of margins en route to the final.

This season has been no different, as Atletico Madrid will attest, and they will be looking for a hat-trick of draws against opponents from the Spanish capital, and this one might just be the most valuable.


Real Madrid

Feb 21 Real Madrid 6-1 Real Betis (LA LIGA)

Feb 15 Sporting Gijon 0-4 Real Madrid (LA LIGA)

Feb 07 Real Madrid 1-0 Racing Santander (LA LIGA)

Jan 31 Numancia 0-2 Real Madrid (LA LIGA)

Jan 25 Real Madrid 1-0 Deportivo La Coruna (LA LIGA)


Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (PREMIER LEAGUE)

Feb 07 Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool (PREMIER LEAGUE)

Feb 04 Everton 1-0 Liverpool (FA CUP)

Feb 01 Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea (PREMIER LEAGUE)

Jan 28 Wigan Athletic 1-1 Liverpool (PREMIER LEAGUE)


Real Madrid

Lassana Diarra, Julien Faubert, Dani Parejo and 21-year-old Hungarian striker, Adam Szalai have all been registered to the squad to replace Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ruben de la Red and Mahamadou Diarra, all of whom have been ruled out for the rest of the campaign.

Coach Juande Ramos has no fresh injury concerns. Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder have fully recovered from their muscular niggles and they are expected to be restored to the first XI. Guti has also returned from a calf muscle tear but he may have to settle for a start on the bench.

Defenders Gabriel Heinze and Fabio Cannavaro picked up minor knocks during Saturday’s 6-1 thumping of Real Betis, but both were able to train normally at the start of the week. Michel Salgado has completed rehabilitation on his right thigh injury, although he will not be match-fit.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Casillas – Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Cannavaro, Heinze – Robben, Lass, Gago, Sneijder – Raul (c), Higuain


The biggest news for Rafa Benitez is the return of talismanic captain, Steven Gerrard. The 28-year-old finally returned to training this week after three weeks out with a hamstring injury and he has travelled with the squad to Madrid, although it is still doubtful whether or not he will start.

Veteran centre-back Sami Hyypia has been recalled to the side after being omitted altogether for the group stage. He is expected to replace Daniel Agger, who has been left behind in England to recover from a back problem.

Midfielder Xabi Alonso returns from suspension but fellow Spaniards, Alvaro Arbeloa and Albert Riera will incur a one-match ban if they pick up another yellow card.

Probable Starting XI (4-4-2): Reina – Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher (c), Dossena – Benayoun, Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Riera – Torres, Kuyt


Real Madrid

There’s one man who wants to beat Liverpool more than anyone else and it’s Arjen Robben. The Dutch winger was in the Chelsea side which lost two semi-finals to the Reds and he is desperate to avenge that disappointment. He has been in superlative form for the last two months but not only that, he will be fresh and well rested after missing the last two league games, and he will be fiercely motivated to impress and score against the Anfield outfit.


There’s one man who wants to score at Real Madrid more than anyone else and it’s Fernando Torres. El Nino heartbreakingly missed the trip back to Madrid to face his former club Atletico during the group stage, but returning to the Spanish capital to take on his one-time bitter crosstown rivals is the next best thing. The 24-year-old has also never scored at the Bernabeu with Atleti, but he’ll be hoping that his Merseyside team-mates can help him rectify that.

Ramos Focused On Liverpool, Not Future

Juande Ramos would not be drawn on speculation that his long-term future at Real Madrid could depend on the outcome of their Champions League last 16 showdown with Liverpool.

Since replacing Bernd Schuster in the Bernabeu hotseat in December, Ramos' team has won 10 of his first 11 games, helping the Spanish giants trim Barcelona's lead at the Primera Liga summit back from 12 points to seven.

Ramos was only handed an initial six-month contract when he took over the reins and it remains to be seen what the former Tottenham and Sevilla coach must do to earn an extended tenure, especially with presidential elections scheduled at Madrid for this summer.

With Barca still clear at the top of La Liga and Real no longer in the Copa Del Rey, Ramos insists he is not thinking about what the tie will mean for his own career, only on helping Madrid get beyond the last 16 stage for the first time since 2004.

"The only thing I'm interested in is getting through the tie because that's the only important thing for Real Madrid," he said.

"My personal situation is not important, I'm only thinking of getting through."

Ramos also preferred not to compare his trajectory with that of Harry Redknapp, his successor at Spurs. In the same period of time that Ramos has been at the Bernabeu, Redknapp has managed only two wins in 10 Barclays Premier League matches.

Ramos said: "I don't have to prove my reputation as a coach, I've been a coach for many years and everybody knows about me.

"I'm proud of our good run because it's been very good for Real Madrid. I don't have anything to say about Tottenham."

Real Tell Benitez To Forget Madrid Job

Rafa Benitez has been told to forget about taking charge at Real Madrid - because Juande Ramos is going to win La Liga and the Champions League!

Despite winning nine games in a row and transforming the Spanish giants following his arrival in December, Ramos' position is still under threat and Benitez continues to be linked with his job.Ramos has only signed a contract until the end of the season, but Madrid president Vicente Boluda is adamant they will not be looking for a replacement this summer.

Boluda said: "Ramos is a great coach and I support him completely. As I believe we are going to be champions his contract would be renewed automatically."

Boluda has taunted Liverpool ahead of the Champions League game at the Bernabeu by claiming his team will cruise to victory and win 5-1 over the two legs.

Boluda added: "We will win 3-0 in the Bernabeu which will be a great party. Then we will win 2-1 in Liverpool.'

"We will go on to win the Champions League. We will win the league, too. I have been saying this for weeks and I'll say it again now."

Rafael Benitez Set For Audition At Real Madrid

Ever the professional, Rafael Benitez insists he is looking no further into the future than 8.45pm, Madrid time, on Wednesday night, but the suspicion remains that the Liverpool manager's first return to Real Madrid for five years serves not only as a homecoming but also a job application.

Beat Juande Ramos's resurgent team and Benitez will surely find more than one contract offer at his fingertips come the summer.

Prove, yet again, that he has the magic touch to deliver the 10th European Cup that is Real's obsession and one of the club's presidential hopefuls would surely come calling.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool's joint owners, would no doubt rush to acquiesce to whatever demands Benitez sees fit.

"I am not thinking about the future beyond the game," Benitez said last night. "I am not thinking about the past either. I am a professional, so I am just concentrating on my team and on this match, not on my contract.

"I don't feel I have anything to prove here. I still have a lot of friends from my days as a player and a coach, so it is nice to see them, but I want to win for my team, not for me.

"The game will not have any impact on my contract talks. You should not judge a manager on a single game, you should judge him on his career."

It is a subject Benitez has grown weary with in recent weeks, the constant denials and speculation making him irascible. Yesterday he even suggested he was blamed by some fans for Liverpool's domestic failures of the last 20 years.

But he is clearly relishing being back in his old haunt, effortlessly conducting a press conference in both English and Spanish, correcting his translator and joking with Jamie Carragher.

The Champions League brings out the best in Benitez. Two finals, one won and one lost, plus a semi-final in four years bear testament to that. No wonder he is seen in Madrid as the man to deliver la decima, their 10th European crown.

Never mind that he has never won at the Bernabeu as a manager, or that Fernando Torres has never scored here, or that Pepe Reina has invariably been on the losing side. "There is always a first time," he said.

More importantly, he remains calm despite being faced with having to decide on Steven Gerrard's fitness this morning. Gerrard trained with the rest of the squad but Benitez admitted he would have to assess the risk of playing the England international after three weeks out with a hamstring injury.

Carragher, though, believes Liverpool's chances of progressing do not rest solely on Gerrard's shoulders. "If you look at 2005, there were plenty of games when Steven didn't play and we still won," he said.

"Obviously we're a better team with him in it and we hope he plays. He's one of the best in the world. But he's not our only hope of winning."

The noises emanating from Madrid are appropriately bullish for Europe's form side. The club's president, Vicente Boluda, has confidently predicted a 3-0 home win tonight, followed by a 2-1 triumph at Anfield.

It is a dismissive attitude which pervades the squad. Juande Ramos, the coach whose temporary stay in the hottest seat in world football will become permanent should he lift the Champions League trophy, has been more diplomatic, suggesting he is expecting a tie decided by fine margins, but the message has obviously not reached his players.

The talismanic Raul insisted enough has changed since the draw was made in December, a time when Real were in meltdown and Liverpool in the ascendancy, to suggest it is the Spanish side who are now favourites.

He said: "We are much better than we were when we were first drawn together. Liverpool have lost a little bit."

Arjen Robben, too, is hardly taking a respectful attitude to opponents whose recent record in the competition is better than anyone's. "Yes, I have unfinished business with Liverpool," said the winger, who twice lost semi-finals to Benitez's side as a Chelsea player.

"But when I was in England, I didn't like playing Liverpool. I much preferred the games with Manchester United and Arsenal, because Liverpool are not a team who play good football.

"They run a lot, they work hard and they're tactically well-organised. It is down to us whether we qualify."

No doubt Benitez will take pride in a withering assessment Robben may live to regret should Liverpool progress. After all, he may find himself with a lot of explaining to do to his new manager come summer.

Carragher Confident But Fires Warning Over Revitalised Real

Jamie Carragher believes Liverpool can beat Real Madrid tonight – even if they are without Steven Gerrard.

But the Anfield centre-back has warned his team-mates to beware the threat of a revitalised Raul.

Rafael Benitez will make a late decision over Gerrard’s fitness, with the skipper having only returned to light training this week after three weeks out following a hamstring tear.

Carragher acknowledges the importance of the skipper to Liverpool’s cause, but points to the successful run to Istanbul four years ago, during which Gerrard was absent for a number of games, that the team can win without their talisman.

“We don’t need to have Steven Gerrard in the team to win in Madrid,” said the centre-back. “We’ve done it in the past. He’s a great player and one of the best in the world, and we hope he’s fit.

“But in 2005 there were plenty of games in which he didn’t play. Of course we are a better team when he plays and hopefully he can play.”

Under Juande Ramos, Real have overcome a poor start to the campaign and won their ninth consecutive game at the weekend.

Key to that turnaround has been Raul, who is the leading goalscorer in the history of the Champions League having scored 64 goals in 121 games in the competition.

And Carragher said: “Raul is a legend, one of the best players in the world. To play for Real Madrid, you need a big character and to play for Real that long and be that successful shows the character he has.

“During the last few years, people have been writing him off at times but he keeps coming back. He’s recently broken the goals record of di Stefano, who was one of the best players of all time.

“He is similar to Steven Gerrard.

“When you think of Real Madrid, you think of Raul, and when you think of Liverpool, you think of Steven Gerrard. He is a great player and it will be a privilege to be on the same pitch.”

However, Carragher reckons Liverpool will this evening possess the “best striker in the world” in Fernando Torres, and expects the former Atletico Madrid man to be eager to impress.

“I think Torres will maybe be more motivated because he used to play for Real’s big rivals Atletico, which is like Liverpool-Everton for us,” he said. “But it’s the Champions League and I’m sure he’ll be determined to prove he is still the best striker in the world which we believe he is.”

Should Gerrard fail to make the starting line-up, Carragher will lead Liverpool out at the Bernabeu this evening.

And he added: “It’s fantastic when the draw comes up as I get very excited as you want to experience playing at the great stadiums.

“We’ve never played at Madrid and one of the biggest in world football. Liverpool are alongside Milan and Madrid as the most successful three teams in Europe.

“I think it’s 14 European Cups between the two teams. That’s a fantastic achievement and let’s hope we can win a sixth this season.

“Real are in better form now but I think people forget Real won the league for the last two years ahead of a fantastic Barcelona team. They may not have had a good run but this was always going to be a tough time.

“When you are playing you have more confidence and I’m sure it will help them. That’s something we have to deal with. We didn’t have the best result in our last game, but we’ll go into the game on a level footing.

“The Champions League is always very important for Liverpool, as is the Premier League. And we have to still believe we can still win both competitions.”

Torres Reveals Double Madrid Motivation

No sooner had Fernando Torres stepped on to the tarmac at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport yesterday, he was surrounded by a swarm of yellow-bibbed runway workers brandishing pens and paper, eager for an autograph.

But while clearly still regarded with great affection by many in the Spanish capital, the Liverpool striker can expect a more frosty reception when he steps out at the Bernabeu this evening.

His match-winning strike in the Euro 2008 final against Germany last summer may have earned Torres the adoration of the entire country.

However, Madrilenian pride means the forward will be public enemy number one to home supporters when Real Madrid host Liverpool in tonight’s blockbusting Champions League first knockout round first leg tie.

Torres, of course, forged his reputation at Real’s city rivals Atletico Madrid, with no love lost between the bitter neighbours.

And despite changing club, country and cultures, the striker once again finds the Bernabeu outfit standing in his way of glory.

Injury deprived Torres of the chance to play in either group game against his former club earlier in the competition.

But now free of the hamstring problems that have hampered his campaign, the 24-year-old believes he is playing for two sets of supporters tonight.

“I have no feelings for Real Madrid,” says Torres. “I played for Atletico, so know that if Liverpool beat Real, it will make lots of Atletico fans happy as well.

“Those games against Atletico in the group stage were very important and I was so disappointed to miss out through injury.

“I was looking forward to the reception but wasn’t even allowed to travel to the Vicente Calderon.

“It was very frustrating for me not to be able to play in either game, but afterwards it was great for me to see the Atletico and Liverpool fans changing shirts and scarves and singing together.

“They were two fantastic days for the fans in Liverpool and Madrid.

“I couldn’t celebrate if I had scored against Atletico. I would have shown respect for my former club where I spent 12 years, the club that helped me become the person I am today. But if I score against Real Madrid, I will celebrate for sure.”

Torres is all too aware of the difficulty in overcoming Real, having never been on the winning side or even scored at the Bernabeu during his time at Atletico.

Indeed, the striker scored only once in a Madrid derby, and has yet to find the net in Europe this season after scoring six times in 11 games during Liverpool’s run to the semi-finals last year.

“It would be great for me to get my first goals in Europe this season against Madrid,” says Torres. “I feel confidence is coming back at the right time and I am sure the goals will follow.

“When I played in Madrid derbies for Atletico we were often the underdogs so it was always very special if we could beat Madrid.

“For the last 12 years or so Atletico have rarely beaten Madrid, it’s been a very long time. It’s always been a very difficult game to beat Madrid.

“When the draw was made, Real were not in their best moment but have improved recently. They are one of the biggest clubs in the world and we have to be aware of that.”

Under the guidance of interim coach Juande Ramos, Real have won nine consecutive games and thrashed Real Betis 6-1 at home in their last outing on Saturday.

The Spanish giants have scored 22 goals and conceded just twice in that period, compared to the 37 goals they leaked during their first 19 games of the campaign.

Tonight represents Liverpool’s first-ever visit to the Bernabeu for a competitive fixture. And while Torres believes the travelling supporters will be impressed by the stadium, the atmosphere pales in contrast to that of Anfield, which hosts the return game on March 10.

“To play in the second leg at Anfield, which is such a magical stadium for us in the Champions League, could be an advantage, especially if we get a good result at the Bernabeu,” says the striker.

“There’s nothing like playing at Anfield. I don’t think there is a ground in the world like Anfield – certainly not the Bernabeu. Liverpool fans will be impressed with the Bernabeu because it is a great stadium but the atmosphere won’t be anything like Anfield.

“It was the same at Atletico. That was a special club with a special feeling and Liverpool is even more so. It will be a close game but it is good that we play at Anfield second. We will have a better atmosphere and it is the small details that will decide this tie.

“Real Madrid will not like playing us because over two games we are very difficult to beat. We are one of the hardest sides to beat in ties like this.”

For Torres, tonight’s game also provides an opportunity, should it really be necessary, to emphatically prove his credentials to those doubters that remain in his home country.

“If you don’t play for Barca or Real in Spain then people just don’t rate you as highly,” he says. “Now I’ve moved to England I still think there’s some of that. I still think some people look at me like an Atleti.

“But maybe now because I am not a rival there’s a bit more affection for me. Moving to Liverpool has given me that chance to show I’ve arrived.”

A debut Bernabeu goal this evening would underline that fact.

Rafa Taking No Risks

Rafa Benitez will wait until lunchtime on Wednesday to confirm whether or not Steven Gerrard will figure against Real Madrid.

Benitez will assess the Reds captain in two upcoming training sessions before making his decision ahead of the daunting trip to the Bernabeu.

Madrid are sure to be a difficult side to overhaul having won their last nine league matches.

And with Gerrard key to Liverpool's success in the competition, Benitez is hoping his star player can overcome a hamstring problem in time for the first leg in Spain.

"It will not be a gamble. If the doctor says he is okay, then it is not a risk," said Benitez.

"Steven is more mature now, he would not make a decision that would be considered a risk.

"He will be involved in light training sessions, we will not try to hide anything. We will make a decision when we are sure.

"Gerrard knows he must give something to the team, and if he cannot do that he will know he is not ready. I can trust Steven on that."

Gerrard's involvement in Liverpool's upcoming European exploits is not the only topic of discussion around the Reds camp, with Benitez yet to agree a new contract at Anfield.

Asked if he felt the club's progress in Europe's elite competition would affect his future on Merseyside, Benitez said: "Of course not, these are important games for us as a club.

"We have important games now and I only want to concentrate on football.

"You have to judge a manager for his career, not just for one or two games.

"This is a big (against Madrid), but not just because I used to play and work here.

"I am a professional, so I want to win with my team, that is the only motivation for me."

Arbeloa - Madrid In My Past

Liverpool full-back Alvaro Arbeloa insists that he has no regrets about his time at Real Madrid, as he prepares to face his former club in the UEFA Champions League knockout stages.

Arbeloa joined the Real Madrid youth ranks at the age of 16, working his way through the Madrid C team and 'Castilla' reserve side, before departing the club in 2006 with just a handful of first team appearances under his belt.

Far more fruitful spells with Deportivo La Coruna and Liverpool have since followed, but the versatile defender is adamant that he still looks back at his Real Madrid career with fondness.

"It was difficult for me to play in Madrid," Arbeloa told LFC Magazine.

"So I had no other option but to move on. Even so, I had a great time there and I wouldn't say I was disappointed in the way my Madrid career ended."

Arbeloa was a product of the well-renowned youth set-up that has nurtured current first-team stars such as Iker Casillas, Guti and Raul.

But with the shadow of the 'Galactico' era still hanging over the Bernabeu, the club's hierarchy has been accused of hindering youth progression by favouring bought-in talent - a factor that Arbeloa believes contributed to his eventual exit.

"Only two players from the Castilla team that I played for managed to make any kind of impression in the first team," he added.

"They were Francisco Pavon and Alvaro Mejia and they have since left as well.

"I stayed there for another 18 months but in the end there was no option for me but to leave."

Three years have now passed since Arbeloa's exit from Madrid, and although the defender admits that ties will undoubtedly remain between him and the club, he is sure that it will be purely Liverpool on his mind on Wednesday.

He added: "It will be strange playing against Real. But the team and management has changed a lot since I was there, so there is no sentiment. We go there to win."

SPL Deal Thrills Liverpool Youth

Liverpool teenager John Marsden says he is delighted to have signed a professional contract with Scottish Premier League side Celtic.

The 16-year-old has penned a three-year deal with the Glasgow giants.

He told BBC Radio Merseyside: "The deal Celtic offered me was better than any English club could have done.

"You can turn professional at 16 up in Scotland, which is not the case in England as you have to wait until you are 17."

And Marsden, who broke a number of junior goalscoring records on Merseyside, believes moving to Scotland can help his development as a player.

"Because of a lack of money at most Scottish clubs they purchase young lads and bring them through.

"They can't just go and buy a Fernando Torres for £25m."

Marsden, a former trainee at Wigan Athletic, scored 91 goals during his four-and-a-half season spell with the Greater Manchester club.

And after securing his first professional contract he said he is now focused on regaining full fitness following a metatarsal injury and returning to action.

"My target for this season is to get fit and play a few games for the under-19s and hopefully next season you'll see the best of me," said Marsden.

"I was in the process of signing for Celtic when I got injured but they were good enough to still sign me and continue with my rehab up here."