Liverpool in need of a stirring recovery against comeback masters Real Madrid

Jurgen Klopp's team face a 5-2 deficit in Champions League last-16 second leg and have recovered from such positions in the past - but so have Real

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah is challenged by Real Madrid's Dani Ceballos during the Champions League round of 16 first leg at Anfield. Reuters
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Three goals down, and up against the reigning European champions on their own turf. Pitching up in Spain fresh from a 1-0 defeat by Bournemouth. On the face of it, it is hard to summon much optimism for Liverpool’s chances of progress in the Champions League as they set about trying to make amends for a 5-2 first-leg deficit to Real Madrid.

Stranger reversals have happened, though, especially at this particular venue, although most of the great comebacks the Bernabeu has witnessed featured the home side. And several of them in the course of a rollercoaster European campaign last year that took Madrid towards the final and victory in Paris over Liverpool.

“When you play against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, you feel something unique in the atmosphere,” said Antonio Rudiger, the defender who speaks with special expertise. He joined Madrid last summer, a few months after being on the losing Chelsea team in a wildly fluctuating quarter-final where Chelsea took a lead in the tie once they were 3-0 up, with ten minutes of normal time to go, in the second leg at the Bernabeu. “That was tough,” recalled Rudiger.

It had been tough and nervous for Madrid, too, until they scraped their way into extra-time and, thanks to Karim Benzema, swung the pendulum their way. But those are 80 minutes from that Madrid-Chelsea game from 11 months ago that merit a glance from Jurgen Klopp and his players as they convince themselves a comeback on Wednesday is possible, Madrid potentially vulnerable.

Klopp has his own touchstones from the past, ready to be summoned - as long as this evening's version of his team takes on a posture more like the one that beat Manchester United 7-0 than the one that was ambushed at Bournemouth only six days later.

During Klopp’s seven and half years in charge of Liverpool, he has seldom known such sudden, extreme swings of form. But he has overseen many stirring responses to adversity, especially in Europe.

In his first season at Anfield, Klopp’s Liverpool reached the Europa League final, a run that included a stunning recovery against Klopp’s former employer Borussia Dortmund. They trailed 2-0 - 3-1 on aggregate - within ten minutes of the start of the second, Anfield leg; they then fell 3-1 behind on the night with little over half an hour remaining.

The away goals rule still applied in that season. Liverpool suddenly needed three goals to win the quarter-final. A strike from Philippe Coutinho, and headed goals from the defenders Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren provided them the result; Lovren’s match-winner timed at 91 minutes.

The route to the 2019 Champions League final would be still more dramatic. In the semi-final first leg, Liverpool had lost 3-0 at Barcelona. Anfield was to witness a comeback of extraordinary energy, noise and a decisive moment of quick thinking. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s crafty corner, after the full-back feigned to leave the kick to a colleague, caught Barcelona by surprise, allowing Divock Origi to score his second goal of the night. With that, Liverpool had turned a three-goal deficit into a 4-3 win.

But there are few clubs as tuned to the mechanics of a stirring recovery, or a ‘remontada’ as they call it in Spain, as Madrid. They came back from being behind at stages of all their knockout ties - against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City - en route to last season’s Champions League title. Even three weeks ago, Madrid were trailing at Anfield 2-0 until their five-goal blitz shifted the balance of the tie emphatically in their favour.

There are phantoms in Madrid’s past. Older supporters recall the shock elimination by Odense of Denmark in the Uefa Cup of 1994-95, when a 3-2 Madrid lead from the away leg was erased by two unanswered Odense goals at the Bernabeu. More recently, Ajax stunned the Bernabeu in 2019 by turning a 2-1 first-leg disadvantage into a 5-3 aggregate victory in a Champions League quarter-final.

Ajax’s 4-1 triumph in Madrid is the same margin Liverpool need, to take the tie at least into extra time. And as Carlo Ancelotti, Madrid’s head coach, joined Rudiger in recalling on Tuesday, there was the ominous late phase of last season’s quarter-final when the Bernabeu scoreboard read: Real Madrid 0, Chelsea 3.

“We are very much alive to what happened in that game against Chelsea,” said Ancelotti, who was also the manager on the wrong side of Liverpool’s most fabled European comeback, the 2005 Champions League final, when AC Milan led 3-0 at halt-time but lost the game on penalties. “That’s why I’ve been saying: we must not get into a situation where we’re having to start doing sums.” He wants Madrid’s comfortable cushion to remain comfortable all night.

Updated: March 15, 2023, 3:53 AM