Liverpool vs Real Madrid: Can the battle-hardened Reds go all the way in Europe? | THT Opinions

Liverpool will meet Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League final this weekend. Can the battle-hardened Reds exact belated revenge on Los Blancos?

It has been a meeting four years in the making, as we reach the curtain call for the 2021/22 season with a bang.

Liverpool and Real Madrid will lock horns in a rematch of their famous clash in the 2018 UEFA Champions final. That meeting in Kyiv had built up as the battle between two of the biggest European powerhouses in different stages of their respective evolutions.

While Real Madrid had been dominating Europe unlike any entity in modern-day football, Liverpool seemed to be blossoming under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp. Four years on, the Reds are the more settled unit, while the Merengues are midway through a transition.

Liverpool will have revenge on their mind this time around after Mohamed Salah’s untimely injury hampered their chances of usurping Los Blancos to become the champions of Europe. The Merseyside giants did go one step ahead in the 2019 finale against Tottenham Hotspur, but the rematch with Real Madrid this year has a more special meaning attached to it.

Both teams have faced many hurdles along the way, with Real Madrid mounting unbelievable comebacks while Liverpool faced challenges from unheralded opponents in the knockout stages. But Liverpool will reach Paris more battered and bruised after a gruelling run-in, while Real Madrid’s campaign ended gently. The Hard Tackle now looks back at the Reds’ journey thus far and their chances in the finale.

The long and arduous journey so far

The UEFA Champions League draw arguably dealt Liverpool a bad hand, bringing Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and FC Porto together in one group. So the Reds had to face the 2020/21 La Liga champions in addition to two teams that went on to win their respective domestic leagues this season.

So before the tournament began, the conventional wisdom suggested that the Reds might have a tall order to top their group, ultimately setting up a challenging clash in the first knockout stage. But to the surprise of many, Liverpool practically breezed through the group stage, making short work of their challenge to reach the Round of 16 before the final matchday.

But that is where the ease of progression ended, as Liverpool ironically made a meal of toppling their opponents in the knockout stages to set up the final against Real Madrid. While the Reds have faced just one defeat in their run to the Champions League final, the second leg clashes in each round left them sweating.

Liverpool eased to a 2-0 win over Inter Milan before the Nerazzurri handed them a 1-0 defeat in the return leg. The tie against Benfica was arguably more straightforward, but a 3-3 draw in the second leg could have escalated out of Liverpool’s control when the Portuguese giants scored two late goals.

The semi-final win over Villarreal saw Liverpool claim their biggest victory on goal difference in the knockout stages. But it that the Yellow Submarine had gone two up in the first half of the second leg to leave the tie hanging by a thread before Liverpool eased the nerves by scoring three in the final 45 minutes. So the more unheralded teams ended up being tougher opponents for Liverpool, exposing some of the chinks in their armour.

But it isn’t just the Champions League run that has been taxing for Liverpool, as they have played multiple games in a week for the better part of the last three months. That has unsurprisingly left Jurgen Klopp’s charges incredibly fatigued, meaning their performance levels have consistently deteriorated.

The Reds have particularly stuttered since the end of the last international break, with the 4-0 win over Manchester United being an aberration. While Liverpool won 11 of their 14 games in this run and remain unbeaten during the period, they have ground out more wins instead of producing fluid displays that blew their opponents away.

Such showings have been reminiscent of their Premier League title run in the 2019/20 season, where Liverpool cruised to the summit of English football without necessarily producing dazzling performances. But that, as they say, is the mark of a champion team, and Liverpool, more often than not, have got the job done even when they have not been at their best.

That was particularly evident when Liverpool slogged it out to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 3-1 on the final day of their Premier League campaign. And with their Premier League title tilt reaching the last seconds of the season, another major issue has cropped up for Liverpool, as we will discuss in the next section.

The stumbling blocks, coming in aplenty

Liverpool failed to win the Premier League title, but more crucially, their battle with Manchester City reached the final day of the season. In contrast, Real Madrid wrapped up their La Liga title triumph with nearly half a dozen rounds of fixtures left to play.

Carlo Ancelotti thus had the luxury of resting his best players in recent weeks, enabling them to be at their sharpest and fittest in the build-up to the Champions League final. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp’s charges also played the FA Cup final less than two weeks ago, with their arduous battle against Chelsea going all the way to the penalty shootout.

So while Real Madrid’s exertions have eased up in May, Liverpool, courtesy of remaining alive in every competition, did not have the blessing of having to let up and release some steam. Instead, Klopp lost a few pivotal players along the way, with Thiago Alcantara more recently sustaining an injury in the Reds’ last game of the Premier League season.

The good news is that Thiago might have the chance to be fit in time for the Champions League final, with Klopp hinting the Spanish international could resume training on Thursday. But while luck might have smiled on Liverpool in Thiago’s case, Fabinho and Virgil van Dijk’s sharpness remains a question mark.

At the same time, Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah has looked jaded and mentally checked out in the last few months after Egypt’s twin failures against Senegal, first in the Africa Cup of Nations final, then the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifier. With Salah losing that spring in his step, Liverpool’s over-reliance on him might have gone down, but they need the 29-year-old to be at his best against Real Madrid.

After wishing to face Real Madrid in the Champions League final, the ball is now in Salah’s court to serve the cold revenge. Perhaps, he has been saving his best till the last, and a purposeful showing off the bench against Wolverhampton Wanderers might have indicated that.

But fatigue remains a crucial factor for Liverpool, who have been run over in the midfield in some of their recent games, allowing opponents to put the defence under pressure. After getting a near-week-long rest between matches for the first time in over six weeks, catching up on much-needed rest before training for the finale.

Will Liverpool go all the way?

Jurgen Klopp might have to re-adapt his system depending on Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara’s fitness status. The Merseyside giants have adopted a more fluid approach due to Thiago’s qualities in the middle of the park, as they have not solely relied on the full-backs for the bulk of chance creation.

Add Naby Keita to the mix, and Liverpool’s output through the central areas has skyrocketed this season. But Klopp might have to task Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson with more creative responsibility if Thiago is not fit enough to start against Real Madrid, which seems highly likely.

Thiago Alcantara's fitness will be key. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Thiago Alcantara’s fitness will be key. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Bongarts/Getty Images)

At the same time, Klopp will need to add more protection for Alexander-Arnold, owing to the marauding presence of Vinicius Junior. That might enable Real Madrid to dominate possession, especially if they bypass Liverpool’s first line of the press, which Dani Carvajal has highlighted as a key tactical point of concern to “create danger”.

With Liverpool’s defence appearing vulnerable lately, Real Madrid could find holes to exploit in the final third. But Carvajal’s suggestion of bypassing Liverpool’s first line of the press is easier said than done. The Reds are arguably the most efficient side to recycle possession in Europe, and the addition of Luis Diaz has made them more formidable during their counter-press.

And while Liverpool’s defence has left a lot to be desired at times in Europe this season, Real Madrid’s backline has seemed worse, with the full-backs being particularly suspect. So Liverpool’s chances of going all the way in Europe appear bright, especially if Salah is at his domineering best.

In the end, though, it might boil down to a battle of the goalkeepers, especially with Karim Benzema being capable of producing special moments out of nothing. However, as Jordan Henderson has pointed out, Real Madrid will face a different Liverpool than the one they came up against in 2018. They can handle pressure situations better, and they should come out on top on Saturday, all things considered.

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