The Champions League quarter-finals come to an end as Liverpool host Real Madrid hoping to pull off another dramatic Champions League comeback at Anfield.
Liverpool went down 3-1 in Madrid, playing about as poorly as one can remember under Jurgen Klopp. The Reds will have hopes they can recall the same spirit that saw them come from 3-0 down to beat Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate en route to winning the 2019 Champions League.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, will be out to capitalise on the momentum they generated with their first-leg and Clásico victories. Los Blancos have found form at the perfect time of the season and are currently in-line to make their first semi-final since 2018, when they won their 13th Champions League title.
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You’d give Madrid the edge, but you’d never want to rule the Reds out. So we’ve come up with some predictions as these two European giants battle to face Chelsea in the semi-finals.
1. Predicted Liverpool XI
Liverpool need to take a gamble. In the first leg Klopp did so by starting Naby Keita, but that backfired horribly. This time, needing at least three goals to win, you can expect nothing less than an all-out assault from the Reds.
They will surely put all four of their fabulous forwards on the field from the first minute, as well as Thiago in midfield next to Fabinho. However, the structure of that midfield two will be crucial, as Liverpool will need Fabinho to be on the right side so the Brazilian can help cover Trent Alexander-Arnold’s forward runs, trying to nullify the impact of Vinicius Junior on the break.
Thiago’s presence will help Liverpool retain, and use, the ball much more efficiently and they will hope to find Roberto Firmino between the lines. And this time the Brazilian will have goalscoring power either side and directly ahead of him with the out-of-form Mané and the in-form Jota. Mohamed Salah will lead the line and has six goals in his last six games; he will need to be in top form if Liverpool are to progress.
2. Predicted Real Madrid XI
Zidane took no risks with his starting XI against Liverpool, then took even fewer against Barcelona in El Clásico. He knows Madrid hold all the cards here so expect yet another safe and sturdy line-up from Los Blancos where they use the link-up play of Karim Benzema and the unrelenting pace of Vinicius Junior to rip Liverpool to bits on the break.
In fact, he will probably only change two players from the first leg and one of those will be enforced as Lucas Vázquez is out injured and will be replaced by Alvaro Odriozola. The temptation to persist with Marco Asensio on the right-wing will be high but Zidane does not trust Odriozola as a defender, so will probably rush Fede Valverde into starting (the Uruguayan picked up a knock in El Clásico and may not be 100% fit) as he offers excellent cover defensively.
3. Sadio to shine again
Liverpool’s tragicomic injury situation in defence has often taken scrutiny away from the attacking trio who haven’t delivered goals like they usually do. Well, two of them haven’t. And because Roberto Firmino is threatening to notch in the single digits for this season (he has six goals so far, half of the disappointing total from 2019/20) the “always world-class” forward has drawn most of the criticism up top.
But Sadio Mané has 12 goals this season. Twelve. That’s only one fewer than his debut campaign and those 13 goals were scored in 29 games. So far this season he’s played 40 times, so to have just 12 goals is miserable. He was awful against Madrid in the first-leg and has pretty much been awful all season, looking miles from the player he has been for so long.
Class is permanent, however. Mané quite simply cannot be terrible forever and, at some point, there will come a backlash where he shows his true quality. Knowing Mané that will probably be in a big game, so why not this one? Facing Alvaro Odriozola gives him a superb chance to get away from his initial marker at the very least and, from there, Mané’s history of getting shots off with very little back lift should put him in position to really make an impact in the game.
4. Madrid’s midfield mastery
One thing Liverpool did not gamble on in the first leg was that Real Madrid’s ageing midfield would be able to compete with theirs. Well, thanks to the almost total lack of a press, that is exactly what happened. Toni Kroos in particular was lasering passes all around the midfield for fun with almost no pressure being applied to him.
Because Liverpool are going to be in all-out attack mode trying to break down Los Blancos’ defence, you can expect the Madrid midfield to come up on top once again. Casemiro will have a field day tackling everyone while Luka Modric and Toni Kroos will relish going up against Thiago, a player they have nearly always dominated whenever they’ve faced off.
Madrid’s midfielders will strut their stuff defensively, but also with the ball they will be able to break lines of pressing and make killer passes forward to the likes of Benzema and Vinicius in space on the break.
5. Real Madrid to survive the Anfield fire
Liverpool’s capacity for resurrection is baked into the fabric of the club itself, but sometimes you can give yourself too much to do. Had they kept the score at 2-1, and thus needed just a 1-0 win at Anfield to go through (or a 2-1 win to go to extra time) then this comeback would be conceivable.
But considering they need at least a 2-0 win and, if Madrid score, a 3-1 win just to force extra time, the potential for a successful comeback is just not there. Liverpool have given themselves too much to do in an empty Anfield, devoid of the supercharged atmosphere that might have carried them to glory.
Then there are the opponents. Their legendary comeback against Barcelona was fired by that Anfield crowd, yes, but also by the Blaugrana’s own mental weaknesses following their collapse at Roma a year before, and the lack of managerial change ensuring the comically underwhelming Ernesto Valverde was still in charge to make all the same mistakes again at Anfield.
Real Madrid have no such weaknesses; in fact, mental strength and belief under the magnificent man management of Zinedine Zidane is their greatest attribute. So even if the crowd were there you would imagine that Real Madrid will survive the Anfield fire. They might lose on the night but they will get the result they need to qualify for their first Champions League semi-final since 2018.