Tonight is one of those nights where the words “This Is Anfield” should bring respect, if not fear, to the players, staff and supporters of the team visiting one of the world’s most famous stadiums.
The dispute between the club’s owners has produced a never ending stream of politically-motivated stories about what’s happening at Anfield. But fans and players at Real Madrid are quite used to that kind of situation, where politics are always playing a part in how the club is run.
Liverpool fans will welcome Real Madrid the same way they welcome any big club on a European night. Real will get respect from Liverpool fans, but they’ll probably never forget the game, whatever the result.
For Liverpool the result can be any draw or any win. A 1-0 defeat would see the game go to extra-time and penalties, any other defeat would end Liverpool’s season. The league is only a mathematical possibility, not a realistic one, so Liverpool fans are desperate to see their team get into the last eight of the competition they’ve won five times.
The so-called “twelfth man” is different on European nights. It’s hard to say why, but it is. Nobody would expect the fans to be up for a game against Sunderland as much as they are for a game against the legendary Real Madrid, but even so there’s a massive difference between what we can expect tonight and the disgraceful booing of one player that a small minority felt was acceptable last week.
Enough has been said on why that embarrassing noise from a shameful few was wrong, tonight we’ll hopefully see why getting behind every single player in a Red shirt is so important.
In the goalkeeper’s shirt is Pepe Reina, and he’s urged the fans to show what they can do: “We need to be able to feel that the supporters are with us and behind us like crazy. The atmosphere on the night when we played Barcelona was unbelievable and I would like to remind the people of moments like these that we have enjoyed together and now to try and create some new ones.”
If Liverpool keep a clean sheet they are through, but for the sake of the nerves of supporters already feeling some butterflies the Reds could really do with scoring themselves. But that’s not Reina’s department: “We always talk about wanting Anfield to be like a fortress and this is one of those occasions when we need it to be this way. With the help of everyone it makes our job a little easier. The fans can make a massive difference to us in this game like they have done in the past, so hopefully this will be the case.”
Pepe’s dad will be there to see him tonight as he was in the first leg “It is always special for me when my dad comes to see me play. He has come to Liverpool as well for this game and it is the kind of game that anyone would like to be at because of the two teams that are involved and the atmosphere that there will be. So hopefully he will be able to enjoy this game even more.”
Reina knows that the 1-0 advantage Liverpool bring into the game is only a start: “Of course the tie is not over yet. We are playing against a tough opponent, a top quality team and we know that it is still going to be tough. We have to go into the game knowing that they are going to give everything and still believing that they can go through.”
As usual, pundits are playing down just how good or dangerous Liverpool’s European opponents are. It’s often the case. But the players are focussed on the realities: “They are a tough team and they are never easy to beat so now we must see if we can do it again and at the very least take the draw.”
But Reina wants Liverpool to do more than just sit back holding onto the 1-0 lead: “If we just defend and protect the lead that will be even more difficult and probably at the end we will have more chance of losing the game. So I think we have to try to win the game and play as we always do.”
Liverpool have been hit by injuries, which Rafa’s critics will try to say are all of his own doing, but that’s far from true. One player still rated doubtful is Fernando Torres, but Pepe is hopeful his Spanish team-mate will get to play some part tonight: “Hopefully Fernando will be lucky tonight and will help us finish the tie. But if he scores a goal, or gives an assist it is not the most important thing because it is all about getting through to the next round.”
And although Liverpool fans are dreaming of another trip to Rome, site of two of Liverpool’s five European Cup final wins, the goalkeeper isn’t looking beyond the next round yet: “We want to get through so that for another year we have shown that we are one of the best eight teams in Europe.”
But Real Madrid’s captain isn’t so sure Liverpool will be able to show that. Raul wants his teammates to use the tingling Anfield atmosphere to their own advantage: “I hope the crowd has a positive influence on us. I’m fortunate enough to have experienced this stadium watching a game in the stands, so I know what it’s like to be here. It’s a spectacular atmosphere and stages like this bring out the best in players and let’s hope we are up to it.
“It’s a massive game. We’ll be going into it full of hope and it’s a day for making history. Liverpool have a slight advantage with the 1-0 lead. We know we have not done so well at this stage in the competition in the past few seasons, so we want to progress.
Real’s boss Juande Ramos knows losing tonight would raise some serious questions about his future. The nature of football in Spain is such that coaches don’t really expect job security, but Ramos was only signed on a six-month contract. He’s not letting any of this worry him though: “I will still have three and a half months left on my contract after this game and I’m very calm and relaxed about it. My future is not a subject that is going to be evaluated until June, whether we win or not.”
He wasn’t keen on how Liverpool played in Spain, and classed their victory as “undeserved”, saying: “Liverpool came to Madrid not to play football, but to try to force a 0-0 draw. On top of that they scored from a set-play and went away with an undeserved victory.”
The usual candidate any time there’s a vacancy for Real coach is Rafa Benítez, and two weeks ago this helped lend credibility to rumours that first leg would be his last game as the Reds’ boss. The rumour proved unfounded, but hadn’t become the top story on Sky Sports News without someone helping boost its credibility.
To avoid fresh rumours starting, not to mention the usual reasons a team wants to win, Liverpool must perform at the top of their game tonight. Rafa knows it’s important on many levels: “This is a very important week for the club, for me, the players, the fans and everyone here. We know that if we can beat Real Madrid we will be in a very good position for the Champions League again, which would be really positive, and if we can beat Manchester United we will still be in the title race.”
Winning at the weekend is something to think about after tonight’s game though: “The first thing is to win against Real Madrid. If we can do this, the team will approach the next game with more confidence. We know Old Trafford is very difficult, but I think we can do it. If we can beat them, it will still be difficult to win the title, but why not?”
First things first though. This is Anfield, and Liverpool fans will make sure Real Madrid know that. It’s then up to the players to show Real Madrid why that matters.