Best of the Rest

Time for Number 6

It doesn’t get any better or bigger than this if you’re a fan of Liverpool. This is the biggest game in club football. This is the ultimate accomplishment for club teams who play in Europe. You win this you’re a legend for eternity.

We all know Liverpool is 5 time champs of this prestigious competition last winning in 2005 when they pulled off the comeback for the ages in Istanbul. As tough as that was, this may be more difficult. This time it is in Kiev, Ukraine against Real Madrid who are simply put royalty in this sport. You don’t even need to be a football fan to know the names on this side. Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema, Modric, Kroos, and Ramos to name a few. They have won this competition 12 times, which is more than anyone. They have also won this thing 3 out of the last 4 years. They will be going for a historical 3 peat on Saturday, so needless to say besides the normal stakes that come with this game, this one may have a little extra to it.

When you put two of the most famous clubs worldwide head to head in this game it is going to bring a lot of hype to this one. Plus you add that both of these teams are known for their ability to attack and are also known to be a little shaky in the back, so no doubt this has all the makings of being a classic.

Season recaps

Liverpool fished third this season in the Premier League and Real Madrid finished third in La Liga. From a Liverpool perspective they are relatively pleased with finishing top 4 for the second straight season, but for Real Madrid a third place finish is incredibly shocking and disappointing.

With all the upheaval at Barcelona before the season Real Madrid was most people’s favorite to win La Liga this season. But for whatever reason when it comes to La Liga they have been a different side than they have been in the Champions League. As I said this is their 4th final in 5 seasons and their third straight, but in La Liga they only have two titles in the last 10 years versus their 3 titles in this in the past 10 years.

No doubt they are the kings of the Champions League at this point in time, but Barcelona still owns La Liga and nothing changed about that this season. They were never really in the title race, they had bad form to start the season, but I’ll throw them a bone and say a lot of that was from bad luck. They were dominating games, but they just couldn’t score, which is the opposite in the Champions League where they have made a habit of getting dominated yet finding a way to eek out results, like they did in both legs against Bayern Munich, the second leg against Juventus, and the first leg against PSG.

But they’re here and that’s all that matters at this point. Nothing that happened since August really matters on Saturday in Kiev, what matters is how the teams perform under the pressure of the biggest stage in club football.

How they got here

I would say the two teams took a bit of a different path to get here. For instance Liverpool won their group with 3 wins, 3 draws, and 0 losses. They scored 23 goals and allowed 6.

On the other hand Real Madrid finished second in their group, which was a rather difficult group with Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund. During the group stage Real Madrid won 4, drew once, and lost once. They scored 17 goals and allowed 7.

  • Round of 16

They also took a bit of a different path in the knockout phase of this competition. The draw was a bit more friendly to Liverpool as they drew Porto versus Real Madrid who drew PSG. Liverpool ripped through Porto with a 5-0 win in the first leg to take a 5-0 aggregate lead home for the second leg, which was a scoreless draw but still was more than enough for the Reds to advance to the quarterfinals.

Real Madrid-PSG was by far the most anticipated Round of 16 tie. In a lot of ways you won’t find a more star studded game or a more expensive game. PSG got the first goal, but Real Madrid was able to equalize before the half, but at 1-1 it would have been a huge advantage for PSG going home for the second leg. But Real Madrid did as they do best in this competition scoring two goals against the run of play to win the leg 3-1 taking a comfortable 3-1 aggregate lead away to PSG for the second leg.

The news got better for Real Madrid even before the second leg began as PSG starman Neymar injured his ankle which would end his club season. This gave Real Madrid a huge advantage as they traveled to Paris. PSG didn’t lay down but they didn’t have enough as Real Madrid won the leg 2-1 to advance 5-2 on aggregate.

  • Quarterfinals

The quarterfinals saw both teams facing stern tests. As Liverpool drew league rival Manchester City, that Manchester City who was rolling through the Premier League to win the title and break about 10 million records along the way.

Liverpool followed a familiar recipe to success in the Champions League by coming out of the gates quick. This time the first leg was at home at Anfield and the atmosphere was something to remember, it was truly one of the special Anfield nights that this club has made famous througout the history of this competition.

Before the game even started from the buses being greeted on the streets by a rabid mob of Reds supporters, hell it was so wild out there that Liverpool fans basically broke the Man City bus. But, as intimidating the greeting may have been to City, the greeting given to the Reds was inspiring and you could argue had the Reds ready to run through a wall before they even entered Anfield. A special rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone followed and Anfield was buzzing unlike it had in years before the opening kickoff.

The Reds jumped on City mistakes early and often to a 3-0 lead which turned Anfield into absolute Bedlam. The second half saw City push for an all important road goal but the Reds were able to fight them off to take the 3-0 aggregate lead to City for the second leg.

City got an early goal which had the football world thinking a shocking comeback could be on the horizon, but Liverpool was able to withstand a decent amount of City pressure before scoring two goals of their own to take a 2-1 win at City and to win on aggregate 5-1.

Real Madrid on the other hand would face Juventus. The same Juventus that they beat last season in Cardiff to win this competition and the same Juventus who was the last team to knock them off when they upset them in shocking fashion in the 2015 tournament in the semifinals. Juventus is the last team to knock this team out in this competition. This would be the 3rd time in 4 seasons the two sides have faced off.

Real Madrid like Liverpool got off to a hot start and looked like the were going to cruise to another semi final. They got the opener in the third minute and tacked on goals in the 64th and 72nd minutes to take a 3-0 at Juventus in the first leg.

To make matters worse for Juve one of their star men Paolo Dybala was given a straight red in the 66th minute which meant he would miss the second leg.

Real Madrid had this in the bad for sure, they had a 3-0 heading home for the second leg and Juventus wouldn’t have Dybala. But as they say this is why they play the game.

Juventus refused to lay down for Madrid. They got off to a quick start scoring in the third minute and got another in the 37th minute to cut the aggregate advantage to 3-2.

They were all the way back when they scored in the 60th minute. This was a shocking comeback that no one saw coming was this going to be the way that Real Madrid’s run in this competition ended. They were getting absolutely dominated, it only seemed like a matter of time before Juventus would score again and again to put this away.

As unlikely as Juventus comeback was it was as unlikely how Real Madrid was able to pull this out and advance to the semifinals.

In almost perfect Real Madrid fashion they would be given a penalty that Ronaldo would convert in the 97th minute to send them to the semifinals.

There was a lot of controversy with this play but it was a penalty I actually give Michael Oliver a lot of credit for calling it, it was no doubt a penalty but a lot of ref’s would have looked the other way because they don’t want to call a penalty at that juncture of a game, especially a game on that large of stage. It’s actually funny, you here people say they don’t want the ref to decide the game with a call, but if he doesn’t call it and Juventus goes onto win, wasn’t he deciding the game by swallowing a whistle in this situation?

But as it has happened so many times in this competition over the past 3 years Madrid somehow someway finds a way to advance when they probably shouldn’t have, it is something Zinedine Zidane and his boys have turned into an art form during this run.

  • Semifinals

The draw for the semifinals was definitely more friendly to Liverpool than Real Madrid. Liverpool would get Roma and Real Madrid would get another familiar foe in Bayern Munich, who they faced in the quarterfinals last season.

Liverpool would get the first leg at Anfield just like they did against Manchester City and the atmosphere was just as wild and Liverpool followed the same recipe they have been following throughout this run, which again is get off to a hot start and put the tie to bed early.

They jumped out to a 5-0 lead by the 68th minute by playing some of the most exhilarating attacking football ever played at Anfield.

Roma did get two back to give them some life before heading home to Rome for the second leg.

The second leg was just as wild. Liverpool jumped out to a lead in the 9th minute which seemed to most would put it away. 5-2 seemed fairly insurmountable, but Roma did make up a 3 goal deficit in the quarters against Barcelona in the second leg at home, so they have shown it was done before.

It got wild after but for that first goal was really what the Reds needed. Roma got the next before Liverpool scored again to take a 2-1 lead into the half.

At this point Liverpool had a 7-3 aggregate lead meaning Roma would need to score 4 in the second half just to force extra time. They did score 3 but 2 of them were in added time, regardless it was enough for an exhausted Liverpool team to advance to the final for the first time since 2007.

Real Madrid had their hands full against Bayern Munich, as they were outplayed fairly badly over the two legs but as we talked about before this team has turned getting outplayed and finding a way to win into art form.

They won the first leg 2-1 at Bayern despite being outshot 17-7, so they were in fairly decent position heading home for the second leg. But Bayern kept taking it to Madrid, they scored in the third minute get things started but regardless of anything they needed to score at least two but Madrid equalized in the 11th minute. Bayern got the lead again which would have forced extra time, but as Madrid always does they equalized the match in the 63rd minute.  This goal put them up in aggregate but at this point Munich just needed to score to advance. Madrid dodged about 10,000,000 bullets before advancing 4-3 on aggregate. It was rather incredible and shocking at the same time seeing them advance again when they didn’t deserve to. Munich outshot them 22-9 in the second leg to bring to total to 39-16 over the two legs. Like I said it’s an artform.

The Stage

This is one of the key factors in this one for Liverpool. I have no doubt in my mind that they can win this game. If you have watched Real Madrid at all this season you know they are there for the taking but one of the biggest keys for Liverpool if they are going to do this is how they handle the stage.

Maybe man for man Real Madrid is more talented individually but as a team I really feel like this Liverpool team is a better team right now than Real Madrid is, but if they don’t handle to stage this won’t matter.

Real Madrid won’t be rattled at all this is for sure, when this is your 4th final in 5 years and they have lads who have won the European Championships and the World Cup nothing is going to phase them, but for Liverpool this is the biggest game in the life of pretty much everyone wearing the Liverpool shirt.

If Liverpool can get comfortable and get comfortable in a hurry and not have a bundle of nerves early or if they do have a bundle of nerves early it is important for them to dodge those bullets until they get comfortable on this stage.

Quick start

This leads me to the quick start if you look at the first legs of the previous rounds of the knockout stage Liverpool won those legs by a combined score of 13-2, including a score of 10-0 in the first half, if they can follow that recipe for success they will win number 6 Saturday night.

Being able to get rid of the nerves early is going to be so important because I think that this team is just built to hammer teams early and ride that wave to victory, if you go back through the season when Liverpool wins they tend to score early and ride that for the entire 90 minutes.

I trust Klopp more than I trust anyone I know he knows what I’m saying. I know he knows that nerves could be an issue, but I also know he knows that getting off to a quick start is imperative. Of course I have no idea how he is going to do it, but I expect him to have this team lose come 8:45 local time on Saturday night and expect this team to come out of the gates firing and expect them to breakthrough in the first 10 minutes.

Matchup

If you’re reading this you’re likely a Liverpool fan at the very least you’re a football fan and you already know that Liverpool wins with their attack. You also know that when Liverpool struggles they struggle with teams that sit deep and force Liverpool to break them down when they have 10 men behind the ball.

This won’t be a problem when facing Real Madrid. Real Madrid is very much like Liverpool when it comes to scoring a lot of goals. They play the type of football people like to watch, the type of football that puts asses in the seats, so having to worry about breaking down a defensive block won’t be a problem in this one and don’t expect Zinedine Zidane to throw a curveball at us here and do something like this, this one will be all about the attack which gives Liverpool a huge edge in this one.

You’ve heard the joke before that Liverpool would rather face Real Madrid in a cup final than West Brom. It’s haha funny but it’s also true. Teams like West Brom (good riddance btw) always give the Reds fits, but they play their best football against the best teams which is simple it is because the best teams generally play a style that allows Liverpool to do best which is hit you on the break and get the trio of Salah, Mane, and Firmino in space.

I expect this to happen all day, which is why from the time this game was set I have felt fairly confident that Liverpool can win this, and to be honest the only thing about this that makes me nervous is their nerves coming out of the gates. As long as they handle this I really think they’re wining number 6.

Lineups

It’s pretty crazy to think that this is as healthy as both of these teams have been for quite some time. Real Madrid won’t be dealing with any injuries while Liverpool will still be without Joel Matip, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Joe Gomez.

Now there is little doubt that Oxlade-Chamberlain will be missed in this. He would start and with how this game will likely be played at a very open fast pace Chamberlain’s ability to drive the play through midfield will be a huge loss. Think about how effective he was in the games against Manchester City this season, it will be a similar type of style so Chamberlain no doubt will be missed.

Matip and Gomez both would likely be on the bench if they were healthy, so their losses will also hurt a little, but this team has been dealing with this adversity throughout the season and especially throghout this run in the Champions League. I trust this starting 11 that we have now, sure I wish we had Oxlade-Chamberlain, but I feel good that the squad is good enough and the front three can do damage against this Madrid defense.

Plus it looks like Adam Lallana and Emre Can will be be back for this game. There has been some debate about Can and what role he could perform in this game. As far as the fact that he will be leaving for Juventus after this game shouldn’t factor in if he would be playing or not. He is a professional and has performed as such his entire tenure with this club, so I have no concerns about motivation if he is called upon on Saturday.

I don’t think he should start. I just don’t trust a guy who hasn’t played since March to start in this game, especially when my biggest concern about this game is the early rust. We don’t need someone in there at the start who may need a few minutes to kick to rust off, but if Klopp does call his name in the second half I believe that Klopp has seen enough from him in training that he thinks he could make an impact, if Klopp didn’t he wouldn’t have brought hin along. I think it’s a positive that we have him as an option. After the Roma game our midfield was so thin who knows where we would have turned if someone went down early, so at least now we have a player of the caliber of Can waiting in the wings.

Same goes for Lallana. Lallana has had a rough season, he hasn’t been healthy at all which is quite the shame, but no one on this team has the playmaking or skill level that Adam has in the midfield so if that’s something we need later in the game it is tremendous to be able to call his name.

Liverpool’s lineup won’t be a secret. I am 99.999999999% sure that you will see the same lineup that played in Rome for the second leg, which is: Karius, Alexander/Arnold, Lovren, van Dijk, Robertson, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Milner, Salah, Firmino, and Mane.

Real Madrid’s lineup is going to be more of a guess as I am not sure exactly how Zidane will play this knowing he has a few options.

The last season emergence of Garreth Bale has given him an option that many didn’t think he would have or want at his disposal but given Bale’s late season emergence he has to at least make Zidane think about entering him in the lineup.

But I think he starts on the bench. First of all I think he will play Benzema to try to take up and force Lovren and van Dijk to deal with him, plus this will free Ronaldo up to what I think will be a tactic of going after Alexander-Anold, also by doing this I think they will play Isco who is their best player on the ball and they will try to run everything through him.

This will put them in a 4-4-2 diamond which is a bit risky which will force a game of cat and mouse between the Madrid fullback and the Liverpool fullbacks as to who gets up the pitch more, plus the is a bit of a risk due to it maybe allowing a little more space for Mane and Salah, but I think the plan here is to control the game through the middle with Isco and not allowing Liverpool to get the ball in positions to get the ball to Mane and Salah.

So, in saying that I think you will see this: Navas, Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo, Modric, Casemiro, Kross, Isco, Benzema, Ronaldo.

Keys

I talked about the battle out wide especially with the Real Madrid fullbacks. I need to repeat it as you can’t let Marcelo have a field day running down the left wing. He will look to jump in that space anytime it is available, but it is also imperative that any time he is caught out of position is to punish him for leaving that space, that is where I think and why I think Mane is going to have a big day I think that he will be able to take advantage of the space Marcelo leaves time and time a game, because let’s be honest here we all love watching Marcelo, his ability to get up in the play as as good as anyone in this game, but he has a mind of his own and tends to wander around sometimes leaving his team vulnerable in the back.

This is also where Robert Firmino will come into play, this is also right in his wheelhouse. He has to drag Ramos and Casemiro with him when he drops back and moves all over the place to open up space, plus it will allow space in the middle for Salah to drift into.

I am fairly confident this is where Liverpool will find a lot of their success in this.

Another area to attack is Casemiro. Look, I love the lad, he is a midfield destroyer the type of player I am dying for Liverpool to get in the center of the park to sit in front of the D, but he does have a glaring weakness which is on the ball.

I expect the Reds to attack him when he gets on the ball with their press and look to counter off of that.

A lot of people talk about Liverpool’s press, but they have pressed less and less each year under Klopp. Look for the same type of approach they had against City in the first leg at Anfield. Look for them to allow Madrid to have possession, they won’t press that much but what they will do is take away their time and space and passing lane, while looking to jump those passing lanes to create turnovers. This is where they will look to counter and try to attack Real Madrid’s vulnerable D.

The pick

I have said about as much as I have said about this game at this point. I have gone with the Reds the entire way and I have been saying I will die on the hill that Madrid isn’t that good that they won’t three peat so I will either be partying like it’s 1999 tomorrow or I will be dying on two fronts, but seriously this team is winning number 6, just chill it’s going to happen and it’s because this is a great matchup for us. This is the type of team we beat that forces all those pundits who want to nitpick and try to say they aren’t that good to begrudgingly give them credit for their success.

I think it will be in typical Reds fashion they will score 3 in the first 25 minutes to take a 3-0 lead, but Real Madrid will storm back scoring twice in the second half forcing us to hold on tight before the final whistle will have us win number 6 3-2 in what should be a classic.

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