Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Champions League Preview: Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

With their hopes of domestic glory fading away, both Liverpool and Real Madrid are set to put all their eggs in the Champions League basket. But by the end of Tuesday night, one of these two illustrious European juggernauts will be forced to leave empty handed.

Liverpool may have been criticised for their overly conservative approach in the first leg clash at the Santiago Bernabeu but it was a move that paid off handsomely for Rafa Benitez. The strategy to sit back, absorbed the pressure and hit Real Madrid on the counter-attack left their over-eager opponents frustrated and impatient, so much so that a silly, unnecessary foul from Gabriel Heinze and slapdash defending from the ensuing freekick allowed one of the smallest players on the pitch to score with his head.

But make no mistake, the strategy was a big gamble by Benitez as he had to put a lot of faith and trust in his players’ defensive discipline. Los Merengues had recently been on something of a goal spree, where they netted ten goals in their last 135 minutes of football prior to the clash with the Reds, and the Liverpool gaffer must have been troubled by anxiety that his gameplan was either going to work or flop spectacularly.

But work it did and it wasn’t all about lining up ten men in red shirts right in front of the goalmouth. Javier Mascherano led the first line of defence brilliantly in midfield, whilst Jamie Carragher marshalled the backline without a hitch. It was executed so perfectly that Madrid never really had a clear shot at goal and Pepe Reina’s net was never really in danger of being rippled, bar Gonzalo Higuain’s offside goal.

Although Rafa has admitted that his side will not play as defensively at Anfield, with a one goal advantage, it’s hard to find a reason why the Spanish tactician would try to fix something that isn’t broken.

With the Premier League title seemingly edging further and further away from them by the week, the pressure is on the Merseysiders to bring the continental crown back to Anfield to avoid another disappointing campaign.

Real Madrid are staring straight at another catastrophic Champions League campaign. A 0-0 first leg scoreline, whilst not perfect, would have been a decent enough a result to take to Anfield for the return clash, as it would have prompted Liverpool to at least come out of their shells and attack in front of their home crowd.

But Benayoun’s late and unexpected goal washed that plan straight down the drain for Los Blancos and they are now faced with a daunting swim upstream just to bring this contest back on level terms.

Unlike their English counterparts, who can be flexible with their strategy, Madrid’s only way out of this predicament is to attack. By hook or by crook, they need to score and they need to keep things tight at the back to avoid leaking in any more goals. The 'Men In White' can hardly take comfort in the fact that the Scousers have conceded just five times in their last 11 home games and they have not been beaten in front of the Kop in almost exactly 13 months.

It would appear that once again, Madrid’s philosophy of having to win every single football match they take part in could cost them dearly, just like it did against Roma last season at this very stage of the tournament.

With their hopes of defending the back-to-back La Liga title not looking any brighter, it seems as though Madrid’s main prospect of silverware this season – to add to their Spanish Supercopa – is the Champions League.

The European crown, which they conquered so dominantly in the competition’s infancy when they famously won it five years in a row, is now starting to turn into a jinx, much like the Copa del Rey. If they fail to get past Liverpool on Tuesday, it would be five years in a row, ironically, where they have stumbled at the very first knockout stage.



Mar 03 Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland Premier League

Feb 28 Middlesbrough 2-0 Liverpool Premier League

Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool Champions League

Feb 22 Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City Premier League

Feb 07 Portsmouth 2-3 Liverpool Premier League

Real Madrid

Mar 07 Real Madrid 1-1 Atletico Madrid La Liga

Feb 28 Espanyol 0-2 Real Madrid La Liga

Feb 25 Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool Champions League

Feb 21 Real Madrid 6-1 Real Betis La Liga

Feb 15 Sporting Gijon 0-4 Real Madrid La Liga



First leg hero, Yossi Benayoun is certain to miss the clash after pulling a hamstring during training. Fernando Torres, meanwhile, is still struggling to regain match fitness following an ankle injury but Benitez will monitor his situation closely to ascertain how big a role he will be able to play on Tuesday.

Alvaro Arbeloa is also nursing a hamstring problem while Daniel Agger still has a back problem and both men will join Torres for a late fitness test to determine if they will make the squad.

Albert Riera is a definite absentee as he is suspended for card accumulation. Mascherano and Arbeloa will banned for the next game if they pick up another booking in this clash.

Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Reina – Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Fabio Aurelio –Mascherano, Xabi Alonso – Gerrard (c), Kuyt, Babel – N’Gog

Real Madrid

Juande Ramos has no fresh injury concerns or suspension worries. In addition, he will welcome Pepe and Wesley Sneijder back to the squad following their weekend suspensions on the domestic front. The Dutchman, however, will most likely start on the bench alongside Guti after the coach hinted in his training sessions that he will retain Marcelo as the left winger with Lassana Diarra and Fernando Gago forming the double pivot.

Javier Saviola and Miguel Torres have been included in the convoy but Michel Salgado, Royston Drenthe, Javi Garcia and Dani Parejo have all been omitted. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is ineligible.

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



Steven Gerrard only made a wind-down-the-clock substitute appearance in the first leg but now that he is back to full fitness, his contributions, leadership and influence on the pitch will be extremely critical if Liverpool are to safely cross the line.

Jamie Carragher will once again be responsible for closing the door shut on any Madrid advances. He did a phenomenal job shackling Raul in the first leg and the Reds vice-captain will have to remain on top of his game in the off-chance Benitez does employ a slightly more attacking-minded approach.

Real Madrid

If there’s one game this season where Madrid really need their captain, Raul to shine and deliver, it would be this one game. Who better to count on when you need to score goals than the Champions League’s all-time leading marksman.

Arjen Robben didn’t quite get his revenge a fortnight ago, but he will have another chance to make matters right. Often Madrid’s prime creative spark, a lot will depend on him to breach the Reds defence. But he must also learn to be less selfish when he gets the ball into a decent scoring position.

Benitez Warns Liverpool About Real Madrid's Raul, Robben & Higuain

The Reds gaffer has pinpointed who he believes will be The Whites’ three key figures when the two European superpowers collide in the Champions League.

Despite taking a 1-0 lead back to Anfield for the return clash against Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is well aware that the contest is far from over.

The Spaniard believes that Los Blancos have three key figures who could turn the tie around and he wants his charges to keep a close eye on them, although he declared that he will not change his team’s style of play to accommodate their opponents’ threats.

“It is necessary to keep an eye on Raul, [Gonzalo] Higuain and [Arjen] Robben. But it does not worry me how Madrid will play. I know very clearly how we are going to play and that is all that matters,” he said during the pre-match press call.

“We must approach the game thinking about scoring, not conceding and winning. The way we will do this will depend on both teams.

“Madrid will not attack from the first minute. They will wait and see how we play first.”

Benitez acknowledged that both sides are in similar shoes in their respective domestic league but he does not subscribe to the idea that Los Blancos will be heavily affected by their recent slip-up in the Primera Division at the weekend.

He said, “They will not be affected, I can assure you. They are two completely different competitions and there’s nothing in common.

“But I hope that we can count on the Anfield support because it will be extremely vital. I hope to hear the Madrid players say at the end of the game that they atmosphere affected them a lot.”

The former Valencia coach has again reiterated that he will not make a decision on the availability of the injured Fernando Torres and Alvaro Arbeloa until the last minute.

Phil Thompson Believes Liverpool Crowd Is Key Against Real Madrid

The man who captained the Reds to a European Cup final triumph over los Merengues thinks that the passionate Anfield support could be the key factor tonight.

Liverpool legend Phil Thompson - a stalwart defender during his playing days who was the first man born in the city to lift the European Cup - believes that the Anfield crowd will need to be at its raucously loud best in order to spur the Reds onto victory over Real Madrid on Tuesday night.

The Reds carry a 1-0 lead into the second leg of the Champions League knock-out phase tie, thanks to Yossi Benayoun's headed effort in the Bernabeu and Thompson, who has also worked as assistant manager at the club, thinks that the crowd is key.

"It is a flag day, the first time Madrid have come to Anfield and we need to show them just how special Anfield is on big occasions," he told The Liverpool Echo today.

"Real have been all over the world but will have never experienced anything like it."

Thompson was captain when Liverpool overcame Real 1-0 in the 1981 European Cup final, when an 82nd minute goal from Alan Kennedy saw the Mersey men become continental champions for the third time.

"Yes it was great and is all about the 1981 final for me," the 55-year-old added.

"To be the first Scouser to lift the European Cup for Liverpool was the most pleasing thing about it. Emlyn Hughes had lifted it in '77 and '78 and had become a Scouser but he was not born in the city.

"Just imagine my feelings of doing something like that. I stood on the Kop and supported the club which makes a huge difference and an incredible feeling and one that is hard to describe.

"I captained England and loved it but lifting the European Cup as captain of Liverpool was the greatest moment of my career."

And the former England defender also thinks that a strong team ethic is vital for today's Reds, as well as the right tactics from manager Rafa Benitez, if they are to prevail on Wednesday.

"It was a big win in Madrid two weeks ago and Liverpool were the better side. The success goes down to the whole team, I think in each area – defence, midfield and attack – everybody did their job. We looked motivated, organised and were better than them in all departments.

"These are two top teams playing against each other, big, big footballing nations and we showed them how much better the Premier League is.

"The win was all down to tactics, passion and the motivation of the players – everything was right on the night."

And the famously committed Liverpudlian concluded by asserting that there was no room for complacency either, stating, "I think we need the fans. We are in the ascendancy after getting the away goal, we are winning 1-0 but can't rest on our laurels.

"If we for one minute think this is in the bag, as players do sometimes and think the work is done, then we are in for a shock."

Benítez Lays Trap For Real By Treating Anfield As Home Away From Home

Rafael Benítez has a clear picture when approaching Premier League games, using his rotational policy, and another when it comes to dealing with major Champions League matches. Clearly, although Liverpool fans crave a period of domestic domination by wresting control from Manchester United, their Spanish leader sees European success as the key to major accolades.

Away from home, whether it be in Istanbul or Barcelona, Benítez sets out his stall precisely and is unfazed, whomever the opposition. He knows that in an away game, no matter how much opponents might dominate the ball and attack, chances will fall to his team over the 90 minutes. He preaches patience and conveys clear instructions, almost to the extent of pleading with his side not to become restless if the opposition are monopolising the ball. An opportunity will eventually come.

Given the balance of this tie, Real Madrid can expect Benítez to adopt those European away tactics at Anfield this evening. Benítez, like Gérard Houllier before him on Merseyside, is a naturally cautious manager who rarely plays expansive football with wide players dashing down the flanks. His is a solid block, relying upon discipline and his players demonstrating a real understanding of the system he wants to adopt. It is a tactic that has worked wonders in the Champions League.

It is a simple system. He wants his team to defend and implement a solid, organised shape quickly, almost inviting the opposition to attack. It demands an unambitious, rugged back four; two deep-lying midfielders charged largely with destructive, defensive duties; and speed and precision on the counter-attack. Simplistic that may be, but it needs huge discipline to succeed. The slightest lapse by any unit and opponents can swarm through, yet this group has bought into the gameplan.

His is a back four that doesn't lose its shape or position, one which includes full-backs programmed to sit at home and not go careering forward in support. If you cut out the space either side of your centre-backs, there is no freedom down the sides – no channels – for opposition attackers to run into and create opportunities. Furthermore, when the full-backs stay in position, the centre-backs are always more comfortable about receiving reliable cover if they do make a mistake. It is a matter of making sure the distance between any two defenders at any time is only a few yards at most.

Just as vital in what is effectively a 4-2-3-1 are the solid midfield sitters, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. Neither will ever develop a nosebleed playing higher in the opposition half. Rarely prepared to roam into forward areas, they work in front of the centre-backs, tackling, anticipating and giving the ball quickly to the team's more dangerous, creative part. They are the foundations upon which attacks are built.

Players from Spain, Brazil and Argentina understand the more patient game Benítez likes to play. They have been brought up in the less frenetic atmosphere as junior players and at early professional level back home, where the accent is on technique rather than blood and thunder. Aurelio, Arbeloa, Alonso, Mascherano, Riera and even the goalkeeper, Reina, are therefore effective in European games as they have the mentality to accept sitting patiently and waiting to pounce.

Above all, they know that, in Torres, Benayoun and Gerrard, particularly, a goal can be conjured in a trice. There was a time when possession was nine-tenths of the law, particularly in midfield. These days, however, counter-attacking is recognised as a team's major weapon. It is the speed that you transfer a ball – when possession switches between the sides – that is key. Fast players have flourished in the modern game, seizing every opportunity to spring forward when the opposition concedes possession, hoping their opponents have over-committed and you can quickly get a man over.

Liverpool have become experts at this tactic. Gerrard, with his wonderful range of long and short but always accurate passes, can liberate Torres and the Spanish striker takes a high percentage of his chances. Kuyt, Riera and Benayoun, likewise, all know when and where to break. It is quite probable that if one studies the statistics, Arsenal and Manchester United, and also maybe Chelsea, dominate possession in European games far more than Liverpool, but this has not always translated into goals scored. Liverpool, with less possession, rely on the counter and it suits their plan, their players and their wily European fox, Benítez.

Liverpool vs. Real Madrid: What To Look Out For At Anfield...

Lassana Diarra takes great care with the ball, but is not so disciplined when defending.

Liverpool will look to break into the space around and behind him.

There will be a gap between Real's defence and midfield for them to try and exploit.....and nobody does that better than a rampaging Steven Gerrard, who is playing his 100th European game for Liverpool tonight.

He spent most of the first leg on the bench, following his recovery from injury, but these are the nights when he comes into his best form.

Pepe is the big lumbering central defender who will return to the Real team tonight.

He is a physical presence for them, but can sometimes go wandering and be caught out of position. Fernando Torres, if fit, will look to make the most of that.

Liverpool have more cunning and craft in their central midfield pairing of Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso.

They will look to control the tempo of the game and provide a guard to the back four, too.

They will look to run the game.

You cannot underestimate a team who turn up with Real's quality.

Take your pick from Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Arjen Robben, Sergio Ramos, Gonzalo Higuain and, of course, Raul, with 64 Champions League goals.

Rafa Benitez seems rattled by criticism, but he has to prove he can take Liverpool all the way in the League.

We know he is a great negotiator of these Champions League knockout games, but that is not enough for Liverpool supporters.

Madrid, with Raul, know only one way of playing - attack, attack, attack. They might start slowly, but then we will have to see what they have.

Surely they will not go down without a fight, but I expect Liverpool will have too much in the end.

Raul Hoping For Historic Victory Against Liverpool FC

Raul has called on Real Madrid to make history by dumping Liverpool out of the Champions League tonight.

The Spanish side visit Anfield for the first time in a competitive fixture looking to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit from their first knockout round tie.

Madrid have fallen at this stage of the competition in each of the last four seasons, losing to Roma, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and Juventus. However, Spanish clubs have enjoyed success at Anfield in the recent past with Celta Vigo, Valencia and Barcelona all returning home with victories.

And Raul said: “It’s a massive game.

“We’ll be going into the game full of hope. It’s a date made for history, a day for making history.

“It’s a fantastic atmosphere here in the ground and we are looking forward to playing in it and we want to progress.”

Aurelio: 'Rafa Is The Key To Liverpool FC's Future'

Fabio Aurelio has seen a future without Rafael Benitez – and warned Liverpool to do all they can to ensure it doesn’t happen any time soon.

Ever since the Champions League draw paired the Anfield outfit with Real Madrid, it was inevitable the subject of Benitez would become a significant sideshow to the game.

Madrid are long time suitors of the Liverpool manager, who spent 16 years at the Bernabeu as a player and then coach.

And the longer Benitez’s proposed new contract remains unsigned, the greater the intrigue builds over his whereabouts after the end of the season.

For Aurelio, though, there should be no debate. “In my opinion it is essential that Liverpool must try to keep him,” says the Brazilian. “Every year he has been here, the squad has improved.

“In almost every year he has got to the final stages of the Champions League and we have been getting closer to the title.”

Aurelio knows all about the influence of Benitez, having played under the Spaniard during his three-year spell in charge at Valencia.

Benitez ended the club’s 31-year wait for the La Liga crown in his first season before two years later again beating Real Madrid and Barcelona to the Spanish title while also lifting the Uefa Cup.

Anfield then came calling with the prospect of a fresh challenge. But while Liverpool have undoubtedly prospered since Benitez’s arrival in the summer of 2004, so Valencia’s fortunes have deteriorated.

Aurelio stayed on for a further two seasons in which the Uefa Super Cup was won before joining his former manager at Anfield in 2006, after which Valencia have only a Copa Del Rey to show for their efforts.

Such is the hole left by Benitez, the Mestalla outfit are now on their fourth manager since his departure and currently stand in eighth place, some 24 points behind leaders Barcelona.

And Aurelio says: “Rafa was key to the success Valencia had. We didn’t have a squad with big names but we have a competitive squad, and Rafa coached his players really well.

“Maybe the success of Valencia was 70-80% because of Benitez.

“It was a big disappointment for Valencia when Rafa left. He came from a second division team and in his first season there he won La Liga, the first time Valencia had won it in 31 years.

“Then in his third season he won La Liga again and the Uefa Cup. Everybody was really excited about Rafa and the work he was doing. But he decided to move to Liverpool and another challenge.

“After he left, everybody was comparing the coaches with Rafa. He won 10 games in a row there, so everybody was expecting the next coach to win 11.

“That affected Valencia a lot as what he did there, nobody could repeat.”

Benitez will aim to better Madrid once again when Liverpool aim for the quarter-finals of the Champions League this evening.

Aurelio was one of the star performers of the 1-0 first-leg win in the Bernabeu a fortnight ago, creating the winner for Yossi Benayoun and negating the threat of dangerous Madrid winger Arjen Robben.

But the modest left-back says: “It was not only me that stopped Robben, it was the team; Riera helped and Mascherano closed down the space.

“Everybody was working together to make the game easier.

“Rafa told all of the defenders that Madrid have got individualists up front that can win games.”

The Champions League once more represents Liverpool’s most likely route to silverware given the manner in which their Premier League title challenge has floundered during the past two months.

Benitez’s side visit leaders Manchester United on Saturday in the knowledge anything but a victory would effectively signal the end of their championship hopes.

“It’s fair to say the next week will make or break our season,” admits Aurelio. “We can just concentrate on the Madrid game for now, but if we can get through to the quarter-finals then it will be a massive confidence boost for the team and can help us in our game against United.

“The United game is our last chance to show we can still be in the title race and it’s important to gain confidence going into that game.”

Aurelio adds: “When you are at a big club such as Liverpool then you know you will be fighting for the big challenges such as the final of the Champions League and trying to win the Premier League.

“Liverpool have shown in the last few years that the Champions League is a competition we like and know how to play in it. We’ve still got a lot to do in the Premier League. We have a small chance of winning the league but we’re going to have beat United and Villa. But you need to handle that kind of pressure when you are at Liverpool.”

Liverpool are hopeful Fernando Torres will have recovered from the ankle injury he sustained in the first-leg win at Bernabeu and which has kept him out of the subsequent two games. And Aurelio says: “It’s important to have Fernando back. He’s one of our key players, and he’s especially keen to play against Madrid who have always been a rival to him. He wants to show Madrid what he is capable of doing.

“Fernando has quality, he has pace and is a good finisher. With Madrid having to go forward we will have more space behind their defence and Fernando can be a key player for us.”

Aurelio is one of several Liverpool players who are out of contract at the end of next season, their situation mirroring that of the manager to increase the air of uncertainty surrounding Anfield.

“I feel very good here and if the club wants me to stay for longer than I would like to stay longer,” says the Brazilian.

“To be honest, I am not worried that talks over a possible new deal haven’t started yet.”

He added: “I have had some problems with injuries in the past and I am just enjoying the moment of playing in these big games.”

Mark Lawrenson: Madrid Just Not The Real Deal Anymore

First thing's first - a prediction. There is no way Real Madrid can be as poor tonight as they were in the Bernabeu.

But here's another prediction - they still won't have enough to stop Liverpool progressing to another Champions League quarter-final at Anfield tonight.

Often in Europe you play a team and by the time the second leg comes round the same opponents are unrecognisable.

And after the awful performance they put in at their own place, Real are going to have be that way to stand any chance of overturning the one-goal deficit Liverpool hold.

Let's face it, if they'd played like that for three weeks at the Bernabeu, we'd still be waiting for them to score.

I can only see them improving for the second leg, so Liverpool will have to make sure they respond with an away goal of their own. That will obviously be the key to seeing out the tie.

But I honestly believe that this current Real Madrid are Real Madrid in name only - and not the European superpower that it suggests.

Back in the days of Zidane, Ronaldo and Figo, you'd back them all day long to get the away goals they need.

One good spell was all it used to take and they could score two or three goals to kill you off in an instant.

The current Madrid side just can't live up to that and their recent Champions League record proves it.

In fact, if Liverpool, driven on by the great backing they always get at Anfield on these nights, can get in amongst them and swarm them in midfield, I can't see a way back.

I can only see them caving in.

Benitez: Respect Liverpool FC's European Record

Rafael Benitez believes he does not get the recognition he deserves for his Champions League record at Liverpool.

The Anfield manager will aim to lead his side into a fourth quarter-final appearance in five years when they host Real Madrid in the second leg of their first knockout round tie this evening.

Liverpool hold a 1-0 lead from the first leg after securing a famous win at the Bernabeu a fortnight ago.

Since Benitez assumed control in the summer of 2004, the Anfield outfit won the European Cup the following year, were runners-up in 2007 and reached the semi-finals last year.

The Spaniard has come in for fierce criticism for his failure to end Liverpool’s long wait for a domestic championship, with this season’s hopes having faltered following a poor run of form since the turn of the year.

However, Benitez was on the offensive yesterday and when asked if his record in Europe was being taken for granted, the Spaniard said: “The messages are not the best in terms of this. The success we have had in Europe is not easy. It’s meant a lot of credit for the players, a lot of memories and a lot of money for the club.

“We are doing very well in Europe and thanks to this we can improve the squad and improve everything a little bit.

He added: “Maybe people do not realise how difficult it is to do well in the Champions League. Before an important game is not the best time to talk about these things. But money is the big difference between us and Manchester United and Chelsea.

“We have to reduce that gap by doing well in the Champions League every year.”

Liverpool’s first-leg win sent them top for the first time since 1985 of Uefa’s ranking system, which awards points for matches won and quality of opposition over the last five years.

And Benitez added: “For me and the club, it’s important that we are the best club in Europe over the last five years. It shows we have been doing a lot of good things in the Champions League and it gives us satisfaction.

“We are now again at the latter stages of the competition and that shows that we are clearly the best team in the Champions League over this period and we deserve to be there because of how we have progressed.

“We are clearly one of the best teams in Europe in terms of our mentality. We wouldn’t do as well as we have in the Champions League if we didn’t have that. We know we can beat anyone if we play well.”

Liverpool have won just two of 12 competitive games at home to Spanish opposition, although they have emerged triumphant in six of seven two-legged ties against teams from Spain.

Asked about a negative Liverpool performance in the Bernabeu, Benitez said: “I’m really happy about this, really happy because we won doing a very, very good job. We have to progress and play as well as possible. We have to play well and win but the order is to win and to play well if it’s possible.”

Tonight’s game is the first of a trio of games that will shape the remainder of Liverpool’s season.

Benitez’s men visit Old Trafford on Saturday for a must-win Premier League clash against Manchester United before entertaining Aston Villa the following week.