2:45pm ET, live in the US on Fox Sports 1
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 3-2 QPR (a); 2-1 West Brom (h); 0-1 Basel (a)
Real: 5-0 Levante (a); 5-0 Athletic Bilbao (h); 2-1 Ludogorets (a)
Previous CL matches:
Liverpool: 0-1 Basel (a); 2-1 Ludogorets (h)
Real: 2-1 Ludogorets (a); 5-1 Basel (h)
Liverpool: Balotelli, Gerrard 1
Basel: Benzema, Ronaldo 2; Bale, James 1
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA)
Rizzoli's actually done one previous Liverpool match: the 3-0 win against Eden Hazard's Lille during the 2009-10 Europa League run.
Guess at a line-up:
Manquillo Skrtel Lovren Moreno
Lallana Balotelli Sterling
So how can Liverpool be better than they were on Sunday? Because, up against what's probably the best team in Europe, I suspect they'll need to be somewhat better.
I think it's safe to assume that Liverpool's far better in the 4-1-2-3 than the 4-2-3-1. With Allen back after a substitute appearance against QPR, the midfield should write itself: Henderson and Allen ahead of Gerrard, by far the best performing midfield Liverpool have deployed the season. Henderson and Coutinho are also an option, but Allen seems the safer choice.
However, Liverpool have few options in defense. Manquillo and Moreno will, thankfully, come back into the side, but with Sakho still injured, the central pairing seemingly has to be Skrtel and Lovren again. Maybe this time will be different from all the other times?
Even at home, Liverpool will almost certainly have to play for the counter, creating opportunities from either fast breaks or pressing from the front. Aside from those last ten or so minutes against QPR, Liverpool haven't been very good on the counter.
Nonetheless, I suspect it'll be the devil we know: a front three of Balotelli, Sterling, and either Lallana or Coutinho. But there has been an increasing groundswell for using Sterling as a central striker rather than Balotelli, a front three of Sterling flanked by Lallana and Coutinho – Carragher mentioned it on Monday Night Football, This is Anfield wrote about it this morning, as did Dominic King of the Mail.
It's an idea that makes a certain amount of sense. They're all quick, clever players who are good on the counter-attack, good at pressing, and excellent passers, things that Liverpool simply have to do well. With Henderson and Allen ahead of Gerrard, there are two more players who can press Real's midfielders when in possession, attempting to disrupt the team at its base. Flood the midfield, ideally prevent the ball from being played up to the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema, James, Isco, etc etc etc, then try to sprint around and through Madrid's defense. Throughballs. Lots and lots of throughballs.
However, it's also an idea that would see three undersized players trying to force their way past the likes of Pepe and Varane, and if/when Lallana and Coutinho need to track back, Raheem Sterling will be very, very isolated. And a team as strong as Real Madrid might not be the ideal opponents for Sterling's first start as a central striker.
There's simply no one good way to attack Real Madrid.
They're rightfully Champions of Europe. They've won their last seven games, scoring five in four of those matches, including the last two, and eight against Deportivo la Coruña. They have this player you may have heard of named Cristiano Ronaldo, who only has 15 goals in seven La Liga appearances. Incidentally, Liverpool have scored 13 goals in eight league matches this season.
Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos, Jese, and Coentrão didn't travel; Varane missed Real's last match through illness but should return. Regardless of those absentees, it's not as if Real are wanting for options. These are the 20 Madrid players who are traveling to Liverpool: Casillas, Navas, Pacheco; Varane, Pepe, Marcelo, Carvajal, Arbeloa, Nacho; Khedira, Kroos, James, Modric, Isco, Illaramendi, Medran, Marcos Llorente; Ronaldo, Benzema, Chicharito.
That's simply not fair.
If Real use the same formation as in the 5-0 victory at Levante, a 4-2-2-2, but at full strength, it'll most likely be Casillas; Carvajal, Varane, Pepe, Marcelo; James, Kroos, Modric, Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema. Or play 4-3-3, bringing in Illaramendi or Khedira for either James or Isco. Navas could start instead of Casillas, Arbeloa instead of Carvajal in either formation, Illaramendi or Khedira for either Kroos or Modric in the 4-2-3-1, Chicharito instead of Benzema. It's fantasy football for real, and yes, pun somewhat intended.
Regardless of formation, Real Madrid are the most vicious team in the world on the counter-attack, capable of punishing the most minor mistake in the blink of an eye. Liverpool don't make minor mistakes. They make enormous, neon red, monstrous mistakes. With players like Kroos and Modric, two of the best ball-playing midfielders in the world, they can also dominate possession and tempo. Real Madrid are barbarous on set plays, especially when Ramos plays, but even in his absence. Liverpool are not the best at defending set plays, to put it far more nicely than Liverpool deserve.
This will be one hell of a challenge.
But this is the sort of challenge that Liverpool dreamt of during those five years in the wilderness. It's Real Madrid back at Anfield, in the Champions League. Make it count.