Real Madrid v Liverpool — what a difference two months make
Back in December, when the draw for the first knock-out round of the Champions League was made, Liverpool could be forgiven for feeling pretty pleased with the prospect of renewing their acquaintance with Real Madrid. How different things look now.
Back then, Liverpool were top of the Premier League, six points ahead of a Manchester United side facing a fixture pile-up and struggling for form. Real Madrid, in apparent disarray after sacking coach Bernd Schuster, were 12 points behind Barcelona, having just lost 2-0 to their arch-rivals.
Now, Liverpool have all but conceded the title to United, while Real Madrid, inspired by Juande Ramos, have won nine league games in a row to give Barcelona plenty to think about. True, Real remain seven points behind Barca, exactly the same margin by which Liverpool trail United, but Ramos’s side will go into the tie bristling with confidence, while their opponents fight just to keep their season alive.
There are at least a couple of other uncomfortable facts for Liverpool to consider as they prepare for a first European Cup meeting with Real since the final in Paris in 1981.
Firstly, coach Rafa Benitez will know that Fernando Torres has a terrible record against Real Madrid. As an Atletico player, Torres could be relied upon to score against Barcelona and to come up short against Real. There was no real explanation for it. That’s just the way it was.
Secondly, it will not have escaped Liverpool’s notice that Raul has gradually played his way back into the sort of form that convinced Sir Alex Ferguson that he was the world’s best player.
Raul is two goals short of Gerd Mueller’s record of total European goals and he has that guile around the box English defences hate. Just ask Ferguson.
Liverpool’s faith will be pinned on Steven Gerrard, who has at least been passed fit enough for a place in the squad. A couple of inspirational performances from him and who knows? But without him, it’s hard to see Liverpool surviving to the last eight. And not many people were talking like that back in December.
PHOTO: Real Madrid’s Raul celebrates a goal during their Spanish First Division soccer match against Real Betis at Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid February 21, 2009. REUTERS/Juan Medina