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Verdict: Both teams to score
Best odds: 1/2
Real Madrid will be playing host to Liverpool at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday evening in the second leg of their Champions League meeting, this season in the round of 16.
It would have most assuredly been described as a clash of the giants, indeed it was before the first leg, but given that Los Blancos left Anfield three weeks ago with a three-goal advantage. Darwin Nunez and Mohamed Salah made the evening start in a perfect way for the Merseysiders, but a brace from Vinicius Junior and Benzema each, and a goal by Eder Militao in between, completely changed the feeling inside the stadium, from joy bordering on ecstatic, to shock and numb disappointment.
Real head coach Carlo Ancelotti, of course, has a painful experience with leading by three goals against Liverpool – he was in the AC Milan dugout in Istanbul, when his team led 3-0 at the break in the Champions League final, only for the Reds to bounce back in the second half and win eventually on penalties. So for all the advantage his team has – not only the three goals, but also the home ground and the fact that Real are a perfect counterattacking machine – he remained very cautious after the Anfield victory.
“It’s not done,” the Italian tactician said.
“Liverpool suffered in the second half, but in the first half we suffered. Overall, I am satisfied because the game was good.”
Meanwhile, Real still seem to be losing the La Liga title race to arch-rivals Barcelona. Having been eliminated from Europe, the Catalans are relentlessly focused on getting over the line first, and at the moment, the gap separating the two titans stands nine points wide. Ancelotti’s men will have a proper chance to reduce it just four days after Liverpool’s visit, when they travel to the Camp Nou. They will also face Xavi Hernandez’s team on April 5th, again at the Camp Nou, in the second leg of the Copa del Rey semifinal after losing the first at home by 0-1.
Real won’t be worried too much about neighbours Atletico, who sit third in the league table with eight points less, or Real Sociedad in fourth, with a deficit of 14, but finishing second surely won’t be considered a success.
Real’s recent form hasn’t been great, for what good it could do for Liverpool. Apart from that first leg at Anfield and the Copa loss to Barcelona at the Bernabeu, they beat Osasuna 0-2 away, drew with Atletico 1-1 at home, played a goalless draw away to Real Betis, and and beat Espanyol 3-1 at home.
There was a bit of a worry for Ancelotti regarding the fitness of Karim Benzema, but after sitting the Espanyol game out as a precaution, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner has returned to full training and is expected to lead the line again.
Defenders David Alaba and Ferland Mendy are also back in training, but considering that they both had rather serious problems, Ancelotti might choose not to risk either too much.
Thibaut Courtios will be in goal, with Antonio Rudiger set to pair up with Militao in the heart of defence again. Dani Carvajal will be on the right defensive flank as always, and Nacho Fernandez is the man likeliest to step into the breach on the left. Aurelien Tchouameni should anchor the midfield, with Fede Valverde nailed on to start, which leaves just one place for either Luka Modric, or Toni Kroos. Benzema will surely have Vinicius Junior on his left, and probably Rodrygo over Marco Asensio on the right.
And if Real’s recent form lacked a bit of consistency and might cost them quite a lot in the title race, Liverpool’s has been like a turbulent sea and they face a big struggle to qualify for the Champions League again.
In the last six matches, the Merseysiders beat Newcastle 0-2 away, lost the first leg to Real at home by 2-5, played a goalless draw away to Crystal Palace, beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 at home, absolutely annihilated arch-rivals Manchester United 7-0 at home – and then lost 1-0 away to relegation-strugglings Bornemouth on Saturday.
Being out of the domestic cup competitions, Liverpool appear likely to have only the Premier League to focus on between the Madrid trip and the end of the season, and that appears to be more than enough on their plate right now. It’s very complicated to assess the position of each team currently in the running for the top four, due to the fact that there have been many postponements through the season for a number of reasons. Liverpool are sixth with 42 points from 26 matches, but Brighton in seventh, as strange as it may seem, cannot be ruled out with 39 from just 24 matches played. Newcastle in fifth are two points ahead of Liverpool, having played 25, while Tottenham Hotspur in fourth have 48 from 27 played.
As for this tie, Klopp tried to be realistic after the first leg, admitting it was probably over after such an underwhelming performance and result in the first leg. Nonetheless, the German also expressed his desire for his team to go to the Spanish capital and try to improve the overall impression by at least winning this particular game.
Defender Joe Gomez is back in training after overcoming a hamstring problem, but winger Luis Diaz (knee), midfielders Thiago Alcantara (groin), Arthur Melo (hamstring), as well as right-back Calvin Ramsay (knee) remain out. In a more recent blow, captain Jordan Henderson has reportedly been left behind due to a bout of illness, and young Stefan Bajcetic misses out through an adductor problem.
Given the situation, it’s not easy to guess which way Klopp’s selection goes for this game.
Alisson Becker will surely be in goal, Virgil van Dijk will command the back line and Mohamed Salah will be attacking down the right flank, but practically everything else remains a puzzle. Having returned to the fold, Gomez could play on the right defensive flank to give Trent Alexander-Arnold a break, though that seems unlikely. On the left, Kostas Tsimikas could replace Andy Robertson. The midfield will likely consist of Fabinho, Harvey Elliott and Naby Keita, and while Nunez and Gakpo remain favourites to start along Salah in attack, Klopp will perhaps consider Diogo Jota or Roberto Firmino too.
Lost tie or not, there’s very little doubt that Liverpool will come out firing at the Bernabeu. It shouldn’t, however, trouble Real too much, with their formidable counterattacking abilities and their more than decent defensive part of the team. The outcome of the match could easily go either way, though probably not so much in Liverpool’s favour that Real need worry about going through.
But there should be chances and goals at both ends again.
Verdict: Both teams to score
Best odds: 1/2