Verdict: Total goals under 2.5
Best odds: 5/4
The Champions League campaign entered its knockout stages last week with the first legs of four round-of-16 clashes played, and now it’s time for the replay of last season’s final as Liverpool host Real Madrid at Anfield on Tuesday evening.
Liverpool are currently among the hotter topics in the Premier League. They’ve put in some appalling performances which deservedly brought embarrassing results, and they certainly don’t deserve to be anywhere near the title race. To put it simply, they haven’t been the same team that won both domestic cups, missed out on the league title by a point and reached the Champions League final last season.
However, the Merseysiders’ form appears to have taken an upwards turn lately, boosted by the return of several important players from longer injury absences. Their run of last six games in all competitions includes a 0-1 FA Cup win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, a goalless draw at home against Chelsea, a 2-1 defeat away to Brighton and Hove Albion in the cup, a 3-0 thrashing suffered at the hands of Wolves in the league, and then, a 2-0 home win over city rivals Everton and a very important 0-2 win away to Newcastle.
Given that Newcastle occupied the fourth place in the Premier League table ahead of their clash, the victory at St. James’ Park has significantly boosted the Reds’ chances of achieving their season goal and qualifying for the Champions League again. There is, of course, still a lot to be done on that front – Liverpool are currently eighth with 35 points, the same tally as Brentford in ninth and Brighton in seventh, but that’s only six less than Newcastle and seven less than Tottenham Hotspur who have overtaken the Magpies in that race; but Liverpool have one game in hand on Newcastle, and two games in hand on Spurs.
In the group stage of the Champions League, Liverpool were placed in Group A and finished second to Serie A leaders Napoli on goal-difference, having lost comprehensively in Naples and returned the favour at Anfield. Ajax were left to play in the Europa League, and Rangers didn’t manage a single point.
As has been said, manager Jurgen Klopp has several players back from injury, which coincides with Liverpool’s improvement in terms of performances and results. Most notably, those players are forwards Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino, as well as defender Virgil van Dijk. The players who remain unavailable for selection are midfielders Thiago Alcantara and Arthur Melo, defenders Ibrahima Konate and Calvin Ramsay, and winger Luis Diaz.
Forward Darwin Nunez is considered a doubt at this point, having picked up a shoulder injury against Newcastle, but he faces a late fitness test and could yet be involved.
Alisson Becker will be in goal, that much is as certain as it gets. Van Dijk will start in the heart of defence, but Klopp can now choose a partner for the Dutch centre-back between Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. If recent form is anything to go by, it’ll likely be Gomez. Young Stefan Bajcetic has impressed this season and has likely earned the right to start this game, especially in the absence of Thiago. Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson are expected to join the 18-year-old in the middle of the park, and with Nunez a question mark, it’s probably reasonable to expect Firmino as the central attacker, with Cody Gakpo on the left and Mohamed Salah on the right.
Things haven’t gone nearly as badly for Real Madrid as they have for Liverpool, but Los Blancos won’t be too happy with their current position either. Sitting second in the La Liga table, they trail arch-rivals Barcelona, newly revived by former captain Xavi Hernandez in the dugout, by eight points, and for all the loud talk from head coach Carlo Ancelotti about not giving up, the Catalans appear very relentless in their determination not to allow Real to come any closer.
But unlike Liverpool, Real at least don’t need to worry about qualifying for the Champions League, with third-place Real Sociedad on eight points less, and city rivals Atletico in fourth place trailing by 10.
Though Ancelotti’s team doesn’t look too convincing at times, their recent form is still largely stable, with their last six matches in all competitions yielding five wins and one defeat. They beat struggling Valencia 2-0 at home and lost 1-0 away to Mallorca as they prepared to embark upon the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco. There they beat Al Ahly in the semifinal by 4-1 and Al-Hilal in the final by 5-3, lifting the prestigious trophy for the fifth time, and followed that up with a 4-0 win at home over Elche, and 0-2 away to Osasuna.
Star striker Karim Benzema, the winner of the 2022 Ballon d’Or, was left out of the squad against Osasuna but is expected back for the Anfield clash. Midfielders Aurelien Tchouameni, heavily linked with Liverpool last summer, and Toni Kroos, however, will not travel to the north-west of England due to bouts of illness. Left-back Ferland Mendy is out with a thigh problem, as is striker Mariano Diaz.
Back from his own hamstring injury, Thibaut Courtois, the undisputed hero of last season’s final with nine saves, will be standing between the posts again. David Alaba is expected to play on the left defensive flank, with Eder Militao and Antonio Rudiger in the middle and Dani Carvajal on the right. Eduardo Camavinga will replace Tchouameni at the midfield base, with Dani Ceballos coming in for Kroos to line up alongside Luka Modric. Benzema will start upfront, with Vinicius Junior, the scorer of the only goal in that final, and Fede Valverde, who assisted that goal, on the flanks.
Faced with the heat of Anfield under the lights, Real will surely look to slow the game down again, just like they did back in May. Liverpool, however, will have learned their lesson and won’t be attacking too rashly. It should certainly be a good game of football, but unless something unexpected happens early on, there won’t be too many chances, or too many goals. Caution will be the word of the day for both teams.
Verdict: Total goals under 2.5
Best odds: 5/4
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