The Anfield Wrap’s match preview before Liverpool v Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16 first leg…


“LIFE is all about timing.”

Things would have felt different a few weeks ago, admitted the manager, but have we finally found our feet again just at the right time?

It’s a game of confidence, after all. Yet the power of self-belief often gets lost in the discourse around what is going wrong. We spend hours on end debating over shape, form, investment and ignore what is glaringly obvious: when the players don’t have confidence in themselves or their teammates, the uphill battle becomes steeper with each passing week.

It’s amazing how little it takes to turn that around. A single chance, goal or good result, and the trajectory changes for everyone. The sense of dread that many felt prior to the Merseyside derby has suddenly become a sense of excitement as the return of European nights approaches.

This fixture has been looming over us since the draw on November 7th. In moments of poor form we’ve feared it, when players pick up injuries we question whether they’ll be back for it, and the World Cup breaking up the season means we’ve waited a very long time for it.

The draw came off the back of wins against Napoli and Tottenham, and I remember the response being a mix of optimism and trepidation. European royalty meeting once again is always something to be excited about, and these are the nights we dream of as football fans.

Liverpool FC during the UEFA Champions League draw

Simultaneously, we have witnessed too many times in recent seasons that Real Madrid are a team capable of getting a result against us when it matters.

Losing Mo Salah to injury early in the final 2018 and being knocked out by them in an empty stadium in 2021 were heavy blows that had mitigating circumstances.

Then the game in Paris eight months ago was completely overshadowed and rendered irrelevant by the horrific and harrowing events that fans experienced trying to enter the stadium.

“Same clubs, different teams, different times,” declared the manager in his pre-match press conference. “There is a history, and usually if you want to get to a final you have to kick us out or them. Now we play against each other, so let’s see who can go through.”

Facing a team with a wealth of experience and players that have won the competition five times, Liverpool will need to strike the right balance between intensity and protecting against the counter attack.

With Jürgen Klopp reiterating the importance of consistency in the aftermath of the Newcastle game, I expect that to be reflected in his team selection.

Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp celebrates after the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at St. James' Park

With four world-class saves at the weekend, Alisson proved exactly why he deserves to be regarded as one of the best keepers in the world. There was also a welcome return for Virgil Van Dijk, who I expect to lead the backline alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and another start for Joe Gomez.

Following a difficult period for the captain Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, both have impressed on their returning to the starting lineup. They will be asked to go again, with star of the season Stefan Bajcetic (anyone else still watching his turn for the second goal?) completing the midfield.

One negative from the weekend was the shoulder injury to Darwin Nunez, but with the manager saying he is hopeful he will be available, I would like to see him in the starting 11. If there is someone who can panic a side that is incredibly hard to unsettle it is him, the chaos king.

The understanding between him and Salah grows with every game, and with two games in two, Cody Gakpo is proving he will have a big part to play in Liverpool’s future.

This isn’t a revenge mission. It’s a season-defining game on a Tuesday night under the lights at Anfield.

There is really no need to look back.

Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Gomez, Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho, Bajcetic; Salah, Nunez, Gakpo

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