Sunday, 22 February 2009

Why Liverpool Should Fear Real Madrid

Goal.com’s KS Leong explores the reasons why Real Madrid have every right to believe that Liverpool are afraid of them

Real Madrid vs Liverpool. You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve reached the showpiece final of this season’s Champions League. But we’re only in the first knockout stage and sadly, one of these two European superpowers will have to depart the tournament shortly.

These two sides have amassed 14 titles between them in the history of the competition, four of which have come in the last ten years alone. Yet, the Merengues and the Merseysiders have not met once since the tournament was re-branded the UEFA Champions League. In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1981 European Cup final, which the Reds won 1-0, for their last ever competitive meeting.

It’s not too surprising, though, considering both clubs have had such contrasting fortunes over time. Madrid, after winning the title three times in a span of five years between 1998 and 2002, have never come close again to making another final.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have won it once, made two finals and one semi-final in the last four years since Rafa Benitez took charge of the Anfield hot-seat back in June 2004.

You can understand then why the Spaniards – from both camps, mind you – have been so anxious to build-up the contest by voicing their strong opinions and predictions for the match. Rafael van der Vaart lit the spark when he trumpeted that Liverpool have every reason to be afraid of Madrid.

But Reds goalkeeper, Pepe Reina responded by saying there’s absolutely nothing for his side to fear. In riposte, Blancos defenders, Pepe and Sergio Ramos boomed that they were optimistic of eliminating their English rivals, who retorted with their own show of confidence from Xabi Alonso and Reina again.

On paper, it would seem that there’s nothing to choose from between these two. But upon closer inspection, perhaps Madrid are the slight favourites. Perhaps Liverpool should be afraid.

1. Red Hot At the Right Time

If this encounter were to take place two months ago, the Red Army would not have hesitated to put their money and their mortgage on their Liverpool side going through to the quarter-finals. And the Madrid faithful probably would, too.

But things have changed dramatically since the turn of the year. Never mind that Benitez’s boys have been in sputtering form or that they have been struggling for consistency, Madrid have simply been in an irresistible hot streak. Nine wins in a row (ten in their last 11 games in all competitions), 25 goals scored, 10 of which came in the last game and a half, and more satisfyingly, conceding just four times.

Los Blancos may not be playing the kind of swashbuckling football to convince bookmakers to install them as favourites to win the competition, but they are getting there; and truth of the matter is that under new coach, Juande Ramos, they know how to grind out a sufficient result. Even more importantly, they know how to keep a clean sheet, which will be extremely crucial considering a single away goal could prove the difference between going home and going to the quarter-finals.

It’s not just the team collectively who have recovered their form. Individually, the players are also back to their very best, from Iker Casillas to Fabio Cannavaro to Arjen Robben and Raul. Confidence and morale will also be a huge factor and around the Bernabeu camp, there are bucket-loads of that to go around, especially after tonight’s 6-1 demolition of Real Betis.

2. No More Injury Nightmares

Two months ago, while the English were busy contemplating calling up their bookies and putting their houses on the line, Madrid’s squad were in ruins, not unlike people’s mortgages.

Most of their players could barely string three games together without falling injured, while their key figures such as Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mahamadou Diarra, Cannavaro, Pepe, Robben were dropping off like flies one after the other. At one point, they had more first-team players in the treatment room than they had in the dressing room.

But now, once again, things have improved significantly for the nine-time European champions. For some mystical, mysterious reason, the ‘Men in White’ are not getting injured as much under Juande as they did under Bernd Schuster. Even the Dutch Porcelain, Robben, managed to reel off seven straight games before picking up the most minor of niggles while on international duty two weeks ago.

The wing-wizard, who is in imperious form, will return in time to face Liverpool, as will midfielders Wesley Sneijder and Guti. But the Blancos are generally expected to be much fresher and fitter than their counterparts. While they’ve been playing one game a week for the last two-and-a-half months, the Reds have been busying themselves with FA Cup obligations and occasional midweek outings.

In short, Madrid have played only ten competitive matches since the conclusion of the Champions League group phase, compared to Liverpool’s 13 (inclusive of their clash with Manchester City on Sunday). It doesn’t help either that Steven Gerrard is carrying an injury while Fernando Torres is struggling with fitness.

3. Juande The Cup King

The ‘White House’ could not have chosen a better candidate to replace Schuster to lead Madrid into the knock-out stage of the tournament. Juande Ramos is an expert when it comes to cup competitions and he might just be the right man to end the club’s Champions League jinx and guide them to the elusive ‘Number 10’.

In a space of just three years, the man from La Mancha won five various titles with Sevilla (two UEFA Cups, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercopa and UEFA Super Cup) before adding another to his résumé with Tottenham Hotspur (League Cup).

In sharp contrast, Schuster, despite guiding tiny Getafe to the 2006/07 Copa del Rey final prior to his Bernabeu switch, had a dismal track record with Madrid in cup games. There was the flop in the two-legged Supercopa against Juande’s Sevilla, the embarrassing exit in the early stages of the Copa two years in a row, and of course, last season’s disappointing elimination to Roma in this very stage of the Champions League, even though his side earned the advantage – for the first time in four years – of playing the pivotal second leg at home.

4. Madrid’s ‘English Contingent’

This could very well be tagged an ‘all-Spanish clash’. There’s a very high likelihood that Liverpool could have more Spanish players on the pitch than Madrid. Well, let’s just put it this way: there will be more Spaniards on the field than there will be Englishmen, even if you count Madrid’s newly appointed Anglo-Saxon groundsman.

But that fact in itself has little significance on the game. The key element here is that the Merseysiders have a distinct edge over their opponents thanks to the heavy Spanish influence in their squad. But Madrid have their own secret weapon. They have their own English contingent… or rather, ex-Premier League contingent.

Players like Gabriel Heinze, Lassana Diarra, Julien Faubert, Robben and coach, Juande himself, all have substantial knowledge of and insight into the English game, their mentality, their subtle tricks, their strengths and weaknesses, to nullify Liverpool’s advantage. Their presence will also come in handy in the return leg at Anfield where Rafa’s side will be playing with 12 men, including the Kop.

5. Hungry Giants

Madrid’s wretched form in this competition over the past half a decade has made them extremely hungry for glory. And after watching some of their closest continental rivals such as Barcelona, Milan and Manchester United succeed over the past few years, that hunger has turned into an obsession.

While it’s one thing not to win the Champions League or go all the way to the final, it’s quite another not to have progressed past the round of 16 four seasons in succession. For a club of Madrid’s stature and history, it’s nothing short of a catastrophe.

Liverpool will no doubt have their own burning ambitions to win Europe’s top prize for a sixth time, but there’s no denying that lifting their 19th domestic crown – and their first since 1990 – has become their very own obsession. This season, they have perhaps their best chance in a long, long while to put an end to that barren spell.

But for Madrid, having already won back-to-back league honours, they have an unfathomable desire to become the very first club to reach double digits in the Champions League trophy count. And besides, with La Liga still looking a tad out of reach, although they have now cut the gap down from 12 to seven points in a space of a week, this may be their best shot of major silverware this campaign. If they can pull off the double, even better.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

1. and 2. Agree
3. Rafa's resume at Liverpool proves he knows how to win CL games.
4. Apparently Rafa's success with Valencia means nothing, nor does any of Liverpool's spanish players experience in la liga?
5. With Liverpool's title hopes dashed on Sunday, they are more likely to focus on CL.

Nonetheless, it will be a good match

Craig - The Real Footie Analyst said...

Good points raised there...but I don't think Liverpool should throw in the towel for the league just yet.