Champions League greats Liverpool and Real Madrid collide
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — With 20 Champions League titles between them, Liverpool vs. Real Madrid is a meeting of two European soccer greats.
Their round-of-16 match at Anfield on Tuesday is also a repeat of last year's final in Paris, which saw Madrid win the competition for a record-extending 14th time after producing a series of improbable comebacks just to make it to the European showpiece at the Stade de France.
“I still shake my head and scratch my head," said former England coach and BT Sport analyst Glenn Hoddle. "I covered every one of those games and I still don’t know how they won it. They were out.”
Madrid secured come-from-behind wins against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in each of the knockout rounds before beating Liverpool 1-0 in the final.
“They were like a boxer, they were up against the ropes and they were halfway down the ropes and you’re thinking the ref’s going to step in and stop the bout," Hoddle said. “I don’t know what happened, they just kept going. And they had that quality.”
Where the Champions League is concerned anything seems possible for Madrid, which won the trophy three years in a row from 2016-18 at a time when Barcelona was dominating the Spanish title.
But if any team can rival Madrid's ability to produce the unexpected in European club soccer’s most prized competition, it is Liverpool.
There was the famous comeback from 3-0 down against AC Milan in the 2005 final before going on to win on penalties. And more recently the 4-3 aggregate win against Barcelona in the semifinals in 2019 after losing 3-0 in the first leg at the Nou Camp.
Madrid, however, has felt like a step too far ever since the draw was made last November.
After all, this is a Liverpool team that faces a fight just to qualify for next season’s competition, let alone win it this year.
Jurgen Klopp has struggled to get his team firing after the departure of key forward Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich last summer and a host of injuries.
Ahead of the first-leg match at Anfield, Klopp can at least be encouraged by a recent upturn in form after back-to-back wins against Everton and Newcastle in the Premier League and goals from misfiring forwards Cody Gakpo and Darwin Nunez.
Suddenly Liverpool looks in contention again for a Champions League-qualifying spot, sitting seven points off fourth place Tottenham with two games in hand.
Then there is the Anfield factor, with an atmosphere that saw Barcelona wilt in that semifinals comeback and Manchester City repeatedly fall despite dominating English soccer in recent years.
Like Madrid's fans, the Liverpool crowd believes nothing is beyond their team when it comes to Europe after winning the trophy six times.
Joe Cole played for and against Liverpool and was part of a Chelsea team that lost in the semifinals at Anfield in 2005 and 2007.
“It’s a huge club. It's as big a club in world football as any and it’s got an expectancy and the fans drive it,” said the BT Sport analyst. “In the ground they turn up for their team. It’s a sight to behold to play for or against them.”
But Cole questions whether Liverpool can overcome this Madrid team, which recently won the Club World Cup.
“They’ve got a job on their hands,” Cole said. “This Real Madrid team is actually better than the team that won it last year, I believe. They’ve improved. The young players coming through are going to be better and the older players are still doing it.”
Madrid also beat Liverpool in the final of 2018 and won when the sides met in the quarterfinals two years ago.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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James Robson, The Associated Press