Real Madrid v Liverpool
First Leg: Santiago Bernabeu, Wednesday, February 25 2009.
Second Leg: Anfield, Tuesday, March 10 2009.
Where do we start with this one?
How about Rafa Benitez, who is under an increasing amount of pressure of Liverpool (some of which is his own doing), possibly going to the Bernabeu in the summer? How about Juande Ramos, who will be returning to England for the first time since he was fired from Tottenham earlier in the year?
How about Real Madrid buying Ajax forward Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Portsmouth midfielder Lassana Diarra, and only being allowed to register one of them for the Knockout Round? They went with Diarra, by the way. How about former Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek backing up Iker Casillas at Real Madrid? Or Real Madrid left-back Gabriel Heinze, who tried to go to Anfield before Manchester United vetoed the move and sent him to Spain instead? Or Fernando Torres who grew up rooting for Real Madrid’s hated rivals, Atletico Madrid? Or Ãlvaro Arbeloa, who used to play for Real Madrid?
Indeed, this match should take on some Spanish flavor as many of the players on both sides are either Spanish internationals or have played for Spanish clubs. In the end, however, it could be a couple of non-Spaniards that decide who wins and who goes home.
For Liverpool, they’ll hope to have their captain and talismanic figure, Steven Gerrard, back from a strained hamstring. Gerrard has carried the load for Liverpool in Europe, scoring 5 goals for his club and making up for the lack of production from last year’s European ace Dirk Kuyt, Torres, and ex-Red Robbie Keane during the group stage.
For Real Madrid, their X-Factor could be Lassana Diarra, the former Pompey defensive midfielder who was put on the roster ahead of highly-rated striker, Huntelaar. Diarra was acquired, in part, to give Real Madrid another good holding midfielder for Europe, and whether he succeeds could go a long way towards determining if Real Madrid advance. His knowledge of Liverpool from his time at Arsenal, Chelsea, and Portsmouth, won’t hurt, either.
Basically, this is a match that will feature a high number of fascinating subplots. However, the on-the-pitch action should be even better as two of the most successful European teams of all time will do battle. Despite their respective struggles, both teams are in second place in their league and are in fine form domestically. Liverpool haven’t lost in the Premiership since November 1, and are only two points behind Manchester United for first place. Meanwhile, Real Madrid have some work to do if they want to catch Barcelona, but they’re unbeaten since December 13 in La Liga.
Both sides have proven goalscorers as Torres, Gerrard, and Kuyt will take on Gonzalo HiguaÃn (13 league goals), Raul (9 league goals), and the resurgent Arjen Robben (5 goals). Both sides have star-studded midfields as Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, and Albert Riera will match wits with the likes of Rafael Van der Vaart, Diarra, Wesley Sneijder, and Robben.
Liverpool’s defense may not get the headlines that the offense does, but they have workhorses in Jamie Carragher, Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Andrea Dossena, and Martin Skrtel. They’ll have to be on the top of their game, since Real Madrid’s defense is one of the best in the business with Pepe, Fabio Cannavaro, Gabriel Heinze, and Sergio Ramos holding down the back. And, of course, you have a matchup of goalkeppers as Iker Casillas will take on his Spanish national teammate and backup Pepe Reina.
Make no mistake about it, this could be the best matchup of the Round of 16. We should be in for a treat between these two footballing giants.
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