It’s the most obvious piece of football analysis ever, but if Liverpool are to win the Champions League this weekend then stopping Cristiano Ronaldo will be key.
Real Madrid’s Portuguese superstar may not possess all the powers he once did. He may be 33, troubled by injury and without the explosiveness which once defined him, but he will still carry Los Blancos’ fight in Kiev on Saturday.
Ronaldo is the Champions League’s top scorer this season with 15 goals. He’s also the competition’s all-time leading marksman, a full 20 clear of Lionel Messi, his nearest and greatest rival. He has won the Golden Boot in each of the last five seasons, and will soon make it six.
Only one player, Iker Casillas, has made more Champions League appearances. Victory against Liverpool will leave Ronaldo on his own as the only man to lift the trophy on five separate occasions. He’s scored in three of the four finals he’s played in previously, the only man in tournament history to achieve such a feat.
Yep, this is his competition alright.
So how do Liverpool stop him?
“You stop him getting the ball,” former Reds defender Mark Lawrenson tells Goal. A simplistic approach, perhaps, but one which carries with it a grain of truth. Certainly the 2018 version of Ronaldo is more reliant on team-mates than, say, the 2009 or 2014 incarnations.
Pako Ayesteran, assistant to Rafa Benitez when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, agrees with Lawrenson.
"To stop Ronaldo, you stop the players who will feed him," he says. "You cannot allow the ball to arrive to him.
"That means the midfield has to be in a good position. They have to close all the penetrating passes when they lose the ball in the transition. With Ronaldo, once the ball is at his feet, everything becomes more difficult."
“He plays the width of the box now,” says Graeme Souness, another European Cup winner with Liverpool. Souness went further, in fact, claiming Ronaldo “spends a lot of time on his bum” and that he was “nowhere near where he was even 12 months ago.”
The stats suggest otherwise. Ronaldo already has more goals this season than he did last, and is getting them at a faster rate too. He netted once every 89 minutes in La Liga; in the Champions League it’s been one every 72.
The “width of the box” argument stands up. Ronaldo did not score a single goal from outside the penalty area this season. He’s still seen by some as a wide player, but his currency is that of the traditional No.9. Until the semi-final with Bayern Munich, he’d netted in every single one of Real’s Champions League games this season, including THAT overhead kick in Turin. He may be aging, but he’s still a game-changer.
Key for Liverpool, then, will be concentration. Ronaldo will not test their defenders for 90 minutes solid, but relaxing against him is not an option. Liverpool must keep him in their eye-line, they must try to limit the number of crosses coming into their box from both flanks. Marcelo, in particular, has been a rich supply-line for Ronaldo down the years, though Mohamed Salah’s presence may just stymie the Brazilian’s forward runs.
“I think Madrid are probably like Liverpool with Salah,” Lawrenson says. “In that, if he doesn’t get a supply line then there’s not a lot he can do without the ball.
“Definitely with Ronaldo, I think the team is built around him. It is all about him. He doesn’t like wander between the centre backs or chase centre backs to get the ball off them. They just tell him to stay there and it is up to us to get the ball to you and then you do your bit.”
Liverpool’s defence will be under the spotlight. Much will be asked of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the 19-year-old Scouser who will start at right back, and of Dejan Lovren, whose form is improved but who remains capable of a high-profile error.
“To stop Ronaldo, we will stop him together,” the Croatian told Goal earlier this week. “We know how to defend as a team.”
Let's hope so. Ronaldo was applauded off the pitch the last time he played at Anfield, in 2014. Liverpool, as if in awe, lost 3-0. There can be no such admiration this time. Respect, yes, but belief too. They are better now, wiser. They exist to compete now, not to marvel.
Liverpool’s midfield – Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner – are all hard-running and will be asked to cover a huge amount of ground, both vertically and laterally. Protection in the wide areas, where both Salah and Sadio Mane will also be asked to do their share defensively, will be vital.
As will the role of Roberto Firmino, probably the best ‘defensive forward’ in the business right now. The Brazilian, with his midfield ideally pushing up behind him, will be asked to help nullify the influence of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Real’s brilliant creative duo.
Kroos, in particular, has the passing range to cause serious problems from deep, so disrupting his rhythm would be a good idea. Klopp revealed this week how his Borussia Dortmund side had done something similar with Xabi Alonso during their semi-final with Real in 2013. They used Mario Gotze, an attacking midfield player, to man-mark the Spaniard, denying him time and space. As Lawrenson said, cut the supply line.
Cut out the errors, too. Liverpool, undoubtedly, are a better defensive team than they were, but they still conceded six goals in their semi-final with Roma. Alexander-Arnold, in particular, had a difficult night in the second leg, while the Reds’ midfield was stretched and over-worked as the game became chaotic.
“It’s a huge challenge for Alexander-Arnold,” says former Liverpool and Real Madrid striker Michael Owen. “He’s got to have the game of his life, but you know I look back to the Manchester City games. [Leroy] Sane tested him in both games, and Trent won the battle. He’s capable of a big performance in a big game, he’s shown it already.”
Elsewhere, it will be up to senior players to step up to the plate. Control is not something we associate with Klopp’s teams, and few expect them to boss the game in Kiev in truth. Their threat, rather, will come from intensity and from pressure, both in a defensive, ball-winning sense and via the counter-attacking threat of Salah and Mane.
At the other end the task is simple, yet often impossible; keep that fella in the No.7 shirt quiet.
Do that and Kiev will be Red, surely.