The 2017/18 and 2021/22 finals will be replayed in what is perhaps the UEFA Champions League’s (UCL) most exciting last-16 match, which pits six-time champions Liverpool against record-holding 14-time champions Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp’s team may be heaving a massive sigh of relief after back-to-back 2-0 victories in league play has relieved some of the mounting pressure on the German coach and his team. Liverpool will host the first-leg after finishing second in Group A.
Even though the Reds have had a disappointing season by their own absurdly high standards, a ferocious Anfield atmosphere on a European night is still to be anticipated. Liverpool probably couldn’t have chosen a tougher opponent than Madrid to improve their record against, even though they have won 16 of their last 23 home games (W16, D6). This is especially true considering that Klopp’s team has failed to defeat their Spanish counterparts in each of the last six head-to-head matches (D1, L5).
The current UCL, La Liga (LL), and Club World Cup champions advanced to the round of 16 by winning Group F as they attempted to move closer to an amazing sixth UCL final in the previous ten years. Madrid is now playing like the unstoppable force that has made them famous, having won each of their previous four games while scoring a staggering 15 goals. Most recently, Madrid defeated Osasuna 2-0 to keep pace with Barcelona at the top of La Liga.
Los Blancos will feel they still need to step up their game despite their great run, given they have only succeeded once in their last seven UCL trips to England (D2, L4). Carlo Ancelotti, who led Liverpool’s city rivals Everton to a 2-0 victory on his most recent trip to Anfield and has now lost only twice in his last 11 managerial encounters with the Reds, is also in for a possibly unpleasant reception (W6, D3).
Players to keep an eye on: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool is one UCL goal away from tying Didier Drogba (44 goals) as the competition’s top-scoring African player. Karim Benzema might score in either of these two games to become the first Madrid player ever to score in six different tournaments in a single season.
In nine of Liverpool’s previous games in the UCL last 16, just one had more than 2.5 goals scored in the whole 90 minutes.
Darwin Nunez’s early departure due to a severe shoulder injury during Liverpool’s victory over Newcastle at the weekend came at a significant cost; he will be subject to more testing in the coming hours to evaluate his readiness for Tuesday.
Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino will engage in a tough competition to finish the attack if the Uruguayan is forced to sit out, and the former may prevail if Klopp decides to use Gakpo centrally once more.
The remaining Liverpool players are Luis Diaz, Ibrahima Konate, Thiago Alcantara, and Calvin Ramsay, while Arthur is still questionable as he recovers from thigh surgery. As a result, vivacious youth Stefan Bajcetic will get the start against the European Champions.
Similarly, Real may be concerned about Karim Benzema’s health after he missed the match against Osasuna due to muscle exhaustion, but Ancelotti anticipates the Ballon d’Or winner to be fully healed for Tuesday after receiving some much-needed rest.
Most importantly, due to illness, both Toni Kroos and Aurelien Tchouameni were unable to travel with the team, and Luka Modric should be joined by Eduardo Camavinga and Dani Ceballos in the midfield triad.
Ferland Mendy, the backup left back, will be out for a few more weeks with a thigh injury, and backup striker Mariano Diaz has been sidelined with an undisclosed illness. However, Thibaut Courtois, who made nine saves in last year’s final, has recovered from a hamstring problem and will start on his return to English soil.
Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Bajcetic, Fabinho, Henderson; Salah, Gakpo, Jota are likely starters for Liverpool.
Courtois, Carvajal, Militao, Rudiger, Alaba, Ceballos, Camavinga, Modric, Valverde, Benzema, and Vinicius Jr. might be Real Madrid’s starting lineup.
We predict: Liverpool 2-2 Real Madrid
How many players Klopp and Ancelotti can get back from the hospital in time to play in Tuesday’s eagerly awaited first leg may very well determine the outcome, but an exciting confrontation should still be in store.
Los Blancos are never to be underestimated in the Champions League and should have Benzema fit and firing in a fearsome attack, so we simply cannot separate the two continental giants and believe that everything will be up for grabs at the Bernabeu next month. Even though Liverpool have regained some momentum at the perfect time and can expose Real’s fitness concerns in midfield, Los Blancos are never to be underestimated in the league.