nemesis | 

How Real Madrid became Liverpool’s European bogey team over the years

Liverpool were among Real Madrid’s chief tormentors in their first meetings.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA/Reuters© PA


Liverpool face a psychological as much as sporting challenge when they face Real Madrid in tonight’s Champions League round-of-16 first-leg tie.

The 14-time European Cup winners may not realise how much recent meetings between the clubs have led to periods of introspection and have been a catalyst for significant changes at Anfield.

Real Madrid use former nemesis as their punch bag

Liverpool were among Real Madrid’s chief tormentors in their first meetings. Think Alan Kennedy’s winning goal in the 1981 European Cup final in Paris, or Rafael Benitez’s side inflicting a 4-0 hammering in the round of 16 in 2009.

“This is Anfield. So what?” the Madrid-favouring Spanish daily Marca had published on the eve of the game, only for Steven Gerrard to inspire such a mauling that Zinedine Zidane declared him as the best player in the world.

“Forget Messi. Forget Ronaldo,” the future Madrid manager argued.

Liverpool also won the first leg in the Santiago Bernabeu 1-0 thanks to Yossi Benayoun during what would be the most enthralling four weeks of Benitez’s reign as his side also won away at Manchester United and dreamed of a Premier League and Champions League double.

Things were going so well even notoriously poor signings such as Andrea Dossena indulged in goalscoring cameos.

But amid the carnage of their heavy defeat, Madrid inadvertently sowed the seeds of Liverpool’s rapid decline as their president Florentino Perez promised an expensive rebuild.

Having tried and failed to lure Gerrard to Spain in previous years, his attention was fixed on Liverpool’s playmaker Xabi Alonso.

Alonso moved to Spain the following summer, joining in the same transfer window as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, and Madrid began to assemble the core of the squad which would win a further five Champions League titles over the next 13 years.

For Benitez’s Liverpool, however, the end was nigh. Chief executive Rick Parry quit between the two legs in 2009, tired of the dysfunctional ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Benitez’s side never recovered from Alonso’s sale. After dropping out of the Champions League in 2010, Benitez left, Hicks and Gillett were forced to sell as they could no longer repay their debts, and it would be another four years before Liverpool returned to the top table of European club football.

Liverpool’s last win over Madrid brings bittersweet memories as a complete European performance in a turbulent era.

Beginning of the end of Gerrard at Liverpool

Where victory over Real in 2009 promised more than it delivered, a harrowing reunion five years on highlighted how far Liverpool had fallen.

The clubs met in the group phase and the thrill of Liverpool being back on the biggest stage made for an Anfield atmosphere more akin to plucky lower-league opponents excitedly welcoming VIPs.

Led by Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid were comfortable 3-0 winners in a game best remembered for Mario Balotelli swapping shirts with defender Pepe at half-time, and being promptly rebuked and substituted.

It summed up the general mood of deference.

The theme continued in the return fixture when, calculating his side had no chance, Brendan Rodgers selected a weakened line-up to spare players for a Premier League game with Chelsea. There were serious ramifications as Gerrard and Raheem Sterling were among those rested. For the skipper, in the midst of contract negotiations, it was the last straw.

​“My disappointment ran so deep I almost made up my mind it was time for a change,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “How could I go on playing for Liverpool another year if these were the kind of empty nights that awaited me?”

Two months later, Gerrard announced his intention to join LA Galaxy. Sterling would depart in the same summer, and although Rodgers just about survived to start the next season, Liverpool had already begun the process of identifying Jurgen Klopp as his replacement.

With some poignancy, Klopp took charge of his first European Anfield fixture on the first anniversary of Madrid’s 3-0 win on Merseyside and the renaissance began.​

The end of Karius’s Liverpool career

It was a completely different Liverpool – in utterly different circumstances – which next met Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final.

The game is remembered for Mohamed Salah’s shoulder injury and the brain fog of goalkeeper Loris Karius, Klopp maintaining the catastrophic errors in Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat owed much to a concussion inflicted by Sergio Ramos’s elbow.

Liverpool felt ready to win that day in Kyiv, but Klopp was already working on reinforcements with Fabinho signed days after the defeat.

Karius’s deficiencies forced a history-changing shift in Klopp’s transfer plans. In the weeks before the final, Liverpool had agreed a £53 million fee with Lyon for attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir. Shortly afterwards, they pulled the plug citing a failed medical and redirected their resources to make Alisson Becker the most expensive goalkeeper ever. The suspicion is that Klopp knew he had a choice between a new goalkeeper or Philippe Coutinho replacement, the club not having the finances to spend big on both.

Whether Fekir’s knee injury was the chief concern or not, Liverpool paid £67m for Alisson and the final piece of the jigsaw required to win every major honour over the next four years was complete.

Would Liverpool have spent so much on their best goalkeeper since Ray Clemence had Karius not given such a club career-ending display?

It was already part of the conversation, but there is no doubt the final cemented Klopp’s view that a world-class goalkeeper was an absolute priority.

Madrid expose Liverpool’s lockdown hell

Klopp must think the football gods are determined to ensure his Liverpool side can never face Madrid in normal conditions.

For three years, Liverpool had been aching for some form of ‘revenge’ for what happened in the 2018 final, wondering what kind of reaction Ramos would receive from an angry Kop.

Instead, their quarter-final meeting in 2021 was behind closed doors due to Covid, the first leg played in the cosmetic conditions of Real’s training ground.

Klopp’s injury-hit side were beaten 3-1, with Vinicius Jnr running riot.

Liverpool could not land a punch in the second leg at a soulless, empty Anfield.

A more typical European night with a full Kop would surely have put Real’s defenders under more pressure as they comfortably resisted a famous Anfield comeback. This really was: “This is Anfield. So what?”

Not for the first time, Klopp was left to curse the timing of facing Madrid.

Yet defeat again sparked an extraordinary reaction. After the loss to Madrid on April 6, 2021, Liverpool would suffer only three more reversals in the next 13 months, an amazing run which came to a depressing end with their next high-profile fixture against Carlo Ancelotti’s side . . . ending Klopp’s cup treble dream in Paris.

The last meeting between the teams was the 2022 Champions League final in Paris, the delayed kick-off because of UEFA’s chaotic organisation creating a strangely subdued atmosphere and a game in which Liverpool lacked a cutting edge as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was man of the match and Vincius Jnr took Real’s big chance.

“Where is next year’s final? Istanbul? Book your hotel,” Klopp said in a bullish response to defeat, proving he did not see this season’s problems coming.

Liverpool have been unrecognisable since then.

“I have a strong feeling we will come again. The boys are competitive. We will have an outstanding group next season,” he said.

​* * * * *

​The meetings with Real in 2021 and 2022 bookmarked Liverpool’s spectacular form which secured Champions League qualification at the end of the lockdown season and led to the subsequent quadruple bid.

This two-legged tie will indicate what journey Liverpool are embarking upon given the tentative signs of recovery in the last two Premier League games, and the return of senior players.

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