The last time Madrid left Anfield they’d been run over so badly that every last man jack had Looney-tunes tyre-tracks up the front of their body and all over their faces.
As opposed to the previous time these two behemoths of European football had met, in a European final which was one of the dullest, achingly-slow elite matches you could wish to suffer, that 2009 Champions League tie was jam-packed full of daring, energy, power and unfettered attacking.
The 1984 European Cup final was one of the ultimate lessons in the means justifying the end.
Mixing the velvet glove with the iron fist
When I was writing my book about the ‘Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble’ I phoned Graeme Souness to talk about the role and skills of Madrid’s talented, creative central midfielder that day in Paris: one Vicente del Bosque.
He told me: “I looked back at that final a couple of months ago because Jamie Redknapp rang me to tell me it was on television. I realised, watching it after such a long time, that for players like del Bosque in Madrid’s midfield Liverpool must have been a nightmare to play against because we were already putting into practice many of the things which are in vogue now: pressing all over the pitch, full-backs pushed high up their touchline so that I stayed sitting in front of the two centre-backs protecting them. I see much of that as central to the success of Barcelona and Spain nowadays.”
At the time Graeme didn’t mention the modern Madrid, but he could have done.
In 1981 the club didn’t learn from Liverpool’s brand of football, didn’t understand that mixing the velvet glove with the iron fist was something which would still function as well in 2014 as it did when Bucksfizz were winning the Eurovision Song Contest.
In 2009 they did learn.
If you recall the Anfield ambush, Madrid were not only hammered 4-0, they couldn’t compete.
They couldn’t keep up mentally or physically: with each passing quarter of an hour the self-belief and stamina diminished to the point that the Reds, inspired and led by one of the great Stevie Gerrard performances, were shooting fish in a barrel.
If you are able to go back and luxuriate in the images, or if, as a Koppite, they are still seared on the brain, then just call up the bewildered looks on the faces of Raul, Heinze and Gago as they thought only about ‘what just happened?’, ‘how soon can this be over?’
I’ve spoken to Liverpool players from that night and their verdict is unanimous. They knew, in advance, that they’d be able to out-sprint, out-last, out-jump and out-muscle Madrid – the out-playing would follow as a natural consequence.
They already knew that Raul was no longer a real threat when the contest was hi-energy, that he epitomized the ‘faded greatness’ of the Madrid era.
The great difference in the ‘lessons’ which were nearly three decades apart is that Madrid assimilated and applied the latter one.
A strategy was adopted.
They wanted Jose Mourinho even then – Florentino Perez wanted to Liverpool-ise, or better still, to Chelsea-ise Madrid.
They wanted to modernize. To blend technique with intensity, power with pace, creativity with coruscating energy.
The coach that night was Juande Ramos who’d achieved just those things with Sevilla, who’d regularly put Madrid through the wringer using players like Luis Fabiano, Freddie Kanouté, Seydou Keita, Ivica Dragutinovic, Julio Baptista, and the late Antonio Puerta. Their 3-5 win at the Bernabéu in the Supercopa was the template. Power, height but oodles of technique.
Juande Ramos didn’t work out at Madrid but Sevilla, Chelsea and now Liverpool had shown the men in grey suits that they were gonna have to use some grey matter. To catch up.
Heinze and Cannavaro out. Raúl directly after.
Sequentially: Alonso, Arbeloa (both alumni of the Anfield ambush), Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Garay, Angel di Maria in.
Strength in numbers
You see the pattern? You see the influence? Height, power, grit, Premier League experience, intensity – all of them tick some or all of those boxes.
Then, one year later, Mourinho. Now Bale.
Height, power, stamina, aggression but, in due course, more weights in training, more gym work, faster paced, more direct football. The Spanish title, three straight Champions League semi finals and then, in Lisbon, La Decima.
There’s a line of cultural change which can be traced from Anfield in 2009 until now.
Painful and humiliating though the experience was.
A brand of thinking at the Bernabeu, particularly around their Valdebebas training centre, that the powerful mix of Spanish craft, technique and strategy when blended with the power, height, pace, commitment, stamina and directness of the Premier League was not only the way forward generally but a means of waging football ‘war’ on the prettier, possession based football at Barcelona.
‘Madrid have it all’
Without pre-judging the result, the master-pupil roles have been reversed from 2009 until now.
Liverpool are patently in the process of trying to reestablish some of the Spanish football credo which they had in their very best years – brilliant, quick passing above all.
But Brendan Rodgers unsurprisingly told Guillem Balaque for AS newspaper this week: “Right now Madrid is a team which can perform at a high level the like of which I’ve not seen in years. They have it all. Great players, speed, technique, fantastic team spirit, experience and a marvellous coach. They play well in tight spaces and if you leave them big spaces on the pitch there’s no team in the world better at exploiting them. My view is that when you mix the technique of the Spanish and or Dutch with the British spirit then it’s very very hard to beat.”
But, to business. To play the first of the two games at Anfield is an advantage. To play Madrid when Bale is out, Ramos is out, Benzema and Varane are both just back from illness and Casillas is searching for confidence and match sharpness – all of this is helpful.
So is the fact that the Clásico is on the horizon.
Form, talent and impetus still suggests that between Ronaldo, James Rodríguez, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos the European Champions can score and return home without losing, quite likely win.
Sterling: the jewel in Liverpool’s crown
However, Martin Skrtel recently organised Slovakia to shock and humiliate Spain, his and Balotelli’s aerial ability directly correlate with the weakest point in Madrid’s armoury.
And then there’s Raheem Sterling.
The jewel in Liverpool’s crown.
I will put a wager of a nice bottle of wine that within a season or two Real Madrid will, literally, not be able to resist his particular charms.
He has everything that the Spanish club adore… and more. And, for the moment, the best thing he can do is torment Marcelo and get that ball into the middle.
No matter how anglified, no matter how Liverpool-ised Madrid have become since 2009 they don’t like a good old fashioned English football aerial bombardment. Tin hats on, everyone.
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