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Champions League Preview: Real Madrid - Liverpool

Kick-off: Wednesday, 25 February 2009, 20:45 CET – Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid

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.

Another Year, Another Attempt

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.

Draw Specialists

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. 

FORM GUIDE

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)

Liverpool

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)

TEAM NEWS

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

Liverpool

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

PLAYERS TO WATCH

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.

Liverpool

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.

PREDICTION

This will be Juande Ramos’ toughest test since the 2-0 loss to Barcelona back in mid-December, five days after he took over the Bernabeu hot-seat. Still, most of the Men In White are optimistic that they can secure a win by at least a two-goal margin while keeping a clean sheet.

As for Liverpool, Benitez will not be afraid to order his troops to defend and stifle their opponents to get a favourable result. He has moulded his team into one of the most stubborn and toughest sides to beat, especially in Europe, and Madrid are unlikely to get the kind of scoring invitation and open spaces they have been afforded in their last two games.

It will be a tight contest but with the hosts obligated and expected to take all the attacking initiative, they should be able to nick at the very least a one goal victory.

Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool

KS Leong, Goal.com

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