‘This is Anfield, but so what?’ says that morning’s front cover of the of Real Madrid-backed sports paper, riffing on the famous players’ tunnel sign at Liverpool’s stadium, and claiming that Madrid’s players would not be intimidated in the slightest in that evening’s game.
The Spanish giants were on Merseyside for a Champions League last 16 second leg, and confident of overcoming a 1-0 result from the first meeting at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, when Reds coach Rafa Benitez had overseen one of his typical tactical masterclasses.
Fans and pundits in the Spanish capital were confident of a comeback, in line with the club’s history of overcoming first leg deficits in Europe. Such positivity proved to be badly misplaced.
Fernando Torres, for years the symbol of Atletico Madrid, tormented his former neighbours throughout the game, and gleefully put Liverpool ahead after 16 minutes. Steven Gerrard scored a debated penalty soon afterwards, and the midfielder then made it 3-0 just before half-time. The unreality of the occasion was heightened late on when much-criticised Italian left-back Andrea Dossena ran clear to score a volley to complete the rout.
Benitez, who was born in Madrid and had kick-started his career as a coach in Real’s youth system, did not exactly get carried away after the game.
“Maybe Madrid were expecting us to play deep and counter-attack but we put them under pressure from the start and tried to win,” Rafa said. “We have to be pleased to score four against a top side. However we could have scored more, so there is always room for improvement.”
The reaction was less understated in the Spanish capital, where the mood had changed in 24 hours.
“Total disaster for Madrid,” Marca’s Wednesday morning cover said. “A tactical, technical and physical humbling from Benitez. Liverpool humiliated Madrid from minute 1 to 93.”
Inside the paper Madrid’s sporting director Mijatovic was quoted: “We must reflect on this as we have left a very bad image. This is a very painful defeat.”
That was true, but the shambolic showing on the pitch was just a reflection of a club in turmoil.
Juande Ramos had been appointed by struggling Blancos president Ramon Calderon just the previous December — the eighth coach in five years. Calderon himself was forced to step down as president in January amid allegations of voting fraud.
Coach Ramos, Mijatovic, and players including Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, were also leaving the following summer. Another European debacle helped the return as president of Florentino Perez, who quickly set about removing all evidence of Calderon’s reign.
Perez immediately splashed out €265m on new talent, including galacticos Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaka. The splurge also saw Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa plucked from Anfield. The following year Jose Mourinho arrived, as a whole new team was assembled to take on Josep Guardiola’s then all-conquering Barcelona side.
That effort eventually led to the ‘Decima’ tenth European Cup finally being captured last season.
Madrid, even after the summer sales of Angel Di Maria and Xabi Alonso, are now in a much different place.
Real’s only survivors from the 2009 game likely to start on Wednesday are goalkeeper Iker Casillas, and defenders Sergio Ramos and Pepe. Liverpool have also experienced plenty of upheaval over the last five years, and just Gerrard and centre-back Martin Skrtel remain as first choice starters.
What has not changed is Marca’s talking up of Real’s chances. Yesterday morning, after Saturday’s 5-0 win at Levante, Marca’s cover proclaimed ‘The Best Attack in the World’.
However, with seven straight wins now in all competitions, while scoring 32 goals and conceding five, Carlo Ancelotti’s side will travel to Anfield this week better able to make good on such confident claims.