The odds will be stacked against Liverpool when they walk out at the Santiago Bernabeu on Wednesday night.
Real Madrid’s 5-2 win in the first leg at Anfield three weeks ago — Liverpool’s heaviest defeat at home in the Champions League — left Jurgen Klopp’s side on the brink of elimination. The champions of Europe, three goals up in their own stadium, against a team beaten by lowly Bournemouth last weekend. Logic suggests the tie is already done and dusted.
But this is Liverpool in the Champions League. They have produced a few miracles on the big stage when all looked lost. What lessons can be learned from those heroic deeds that entered Anfield folklore?
How do you pull off the seemingly impossible?
Jamie Carragher was part of the greatest fightback of them all: the 2005 final in Istanbul. Liverpool trailed AC Milan 3-0 after a chastening opening 45 minutes but rallied to force extra time and then held their nerve to win on penalties. Current Real boss Carlo Ancelotti was on the receiving end that night. No wonder he’s been banging the drum that this tie is still alive, as has Carragher.
“The challenge facing Liverpool isn’t as big as the one facing us back then,” Carragher tells The Athletic. “We only had 45 minutes to turn it around from three goals down but this Liverpool team have 90 minutes. That’s why I’d still say Istanbul has the edge even if they pull this one off.
“The biggest thing is that Liverpool have to score the first goal on the night. That’s vital. They have to start fast. Pulling one back gives you belief and something to build on. That’s what happened to us with the header from Steven Gerrard.”
Only four times in Champions League history has a team overturned a deficit of three goals or more from the first leg.
However, Klopp’s Liverpool were responsible for the most recent awe-inspiring salvage act — the second leg of their semi-final against Barcelona in 2019.
That’s the blueprint. It was the perfect display of controlled aggression as they made light of the absence of Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
Unlikely heroes emerged. Georginio Wijnaldum came off the bench to score twice and Divock Origi, who had opened the scoring, swept them into the final when he converted Trent Alexander-Arnold’s quick corner.
“The thing that really made it possible is that they are really f***ing mentality giants. This mix of again a big heart and football skills. It’s unbelievable,” Klopp said.
Klopp’s powers of motivation certainly came to the fore on that occasion. During the pre-game meeting at the city’s Hope Street Hotel, he told his players: “What we need to do tonight I would say is impossible but, because it is you lot, there is a chance.”
“The manager’s speech that morning changed everything,” said captain Jordan Henderson. “He had us straightaway. All through the day I was thinking to myself, ‘Anfield, the crowd, an early goal… maybe?’.”
Origi scored inside seven minutes that night but Liverpool didn’t further reduce the deficit until after the break and Carragher insists that fact shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Yeah, it’s not a case of going bananas and trying to score three right from the off,” he says.“If Liverpool can go into half-time 1-0 up at the Bernabeu that would be a really decent scoreline. Stay in the tie.
“When I say they have to really go for it, I’m not saying you start four attackers, I’m talking mainly about what they do off the ball. They need to get that high press going and force mistakes. They need to be aggressive. They also need to make sure they don’t leave themselves wide open on the counter. It’s got to be controlled.
“You can’t go into the game thinking about how you’re going to score three or four. My advice would be don’t think too much about the result that’s needed to go through. Our mindset at half-time in Istanbul was just to restore some pride: ‘Get the next one and go from there’. Liverpool’s should be the same in Madrid. We’re Liverpool in Europe — go and put in a proper performance.”
Another reference point for Klopp’s Liverpool is April 14, 2016, when they scored three times in the final 25 minutes of their Europa League quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund to go through 5-4 on aggregate. Klopp had referenced the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ in his half-time team talk.
“The coach said we had to create a moment to tell our grandchildren about, to make a special night for the fans. We believed in it,” said Origi. “When we scored the first goal, we all felt it would be a special moment.
“The manager was very calm, surprisingly calm. That’s the class of a big manager. You could see no panic, no stress, he believed in us and it helped. We had nothing to lose.”
The difference this time is that Liverpool won’t have a huge army of fans roaring them on. In fact, due to the redevelopment of the Bernabeu, they have a reduced allocation of just 1,800 in Madrid.
This would be unprecedented on an opponent’s turf but Real have twice lost by three goals at home in Europe — both in the 2018-19 season (3-0 against CSKA Moscow with a much-changed team and 4-1 against Ajax in the knockout stages when they were eliminated). A year ago, Ancelotti’s side were beaten 4-0 at the Bernabeu by Barcelona and they have conceded three times in a game on four occasions this campaign.
“Real aren’t an unbelievable team,” Carragher adds. “Chelsea went there in a similar situation in the quarter-finals last season. It wasn’t quite as bad but they were 3-1 down from the home leg. They went 3-0 up in the Bernabeu before Real fought back to win the tie.
“I saw Manchester City look comfortable for most of the night in the Bernabeu in the semi-final before inexplicably conceding twice in stoppage time and going out after extra time.
“You need some luck along the way. You need your keeper to make big saves at big moments and your attackers to be clinical.
“Real had some good fortune in the first leg at Anfield. Alisson is one of the best goalkeepers in the world with the ball at his feet but he gave them a goal at a pivotal stage of the game.
“You’ve got to embrace playing at the Bernabeu. It’s an amazing arena. A special place to play football. Get the first goal, stay calm, stay disciplined and stay in the tie for as long as possible.”
The tactics: How should Liverpool play?
If there is one person who doesn’t need reminding of how even an apparently impregnable lead can be rendered vulnerable in Europe, it is Ancelotti.
The Italian not only bears the scars of Istanbul but also has the more recent memory of last season when his Real Madrid side — leading Chelsea 3-1 from the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final — found themselves 3-0 down on home soil to Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Liverpool’s task is even harder as a 3-0 victory would only level the tie, and Real scored twice late on again Chelsea to win the tie on aggregate, but it is a recent example that shows you can score three goals in Madrid.
Though their second goal came from a set piece, Chelsea’s first and third goals came from their ability to draw out Real Madrid’s centre-backs and expose the central space behind them. Their positional flexibility, playing without a recognised No 9, was pivotal, and David Alaba and Nacho Fernandez were caught out by Tuchel’s plan.
Exposing space behind Real Madrid is something Liverpool have struggled to do. In last season’s Champions League final, Ancelotti set up his players to sit deep and allow Klopp’s side to have the ball in front of them.
Liverpool had their own plan to beat Real Madrid last month and, for 21 minutes, it worked. They were intense, aggressive, disciplined and carried a goalscoring threat.
Their intensity was evident inside the first 10 seconds when defensive midfielder Fabinho pressed Eduardo Camavinga aggressively high up the pitch.
It was a theme throughout the opening 20 minutes with Liverpool looking to press high…
… and limit Camavinga, Real Madrid’s deepest midfielder, from receiving the ball and turning with space in front of him.
Within two minutes, they nearly created the first opening after Cody Gakpo robbed the ball from Camavinga deep in Madrid’s half.
Henderson passed it to the Dutchman…
… but Gakpo slipped at the crucial moment.
That continued and they forced Madrid to go long by limiting their passing options, and with their front-foot intensity.
With Alexander-Arnold pushed forward to help that press and to create in possession, they had to be responsible. They also managed Vinicius Junior well, with Henderson providing cover on this occasion.
Eventually, that led to Thibaut Courtois’ error, which gifted Salah with the second goal.
They won the ball initially from Camavinga through Fabinho, with the help of a slip from the Frenchman.
Gakpo’s touch from the Brazilian’s pass was loose…
… and allowed Dani Carvajal to direct the ball back to his goalkeeper.
But Salah pressed him regardless and the Belgian panicked, miscontrolling the ball. It was a reward for Salah not giving up when the situation seemed innocuous.
Madrid could not find an escape route from the Liverpool press until the 20th minute when the hosts were too aggressive in their press and allowed Camavinga time to receive the ball and turn.
This led to Madrid advancing up the pitch and ultimately, after a period of sustained possession, they were able to secure the goal that gave them a foothold in the tie.
Before then, Liverpool had maintained their shape when Madrid advanced up the pitch, dropping occasionally into a 4-5-1 and allowing Madrid to have possession in front of them.
They defended in numbers, too. In the image below, every Liverpool player on the pitch has dropped deep, well into their own half, to snuff out a Madrid attack.
When they were forced back, they needed hold-up play from their forward players to help them move up the pitch and launch counter-attacks.
It can also give Salah space to work. Gakpo’s excellent touch, below, took him away from two Real Madrid players and into space.
He drove forward with the ball before passing it to Salah.
With Real Madrid on the back foot, Salah drove at pace into the opposition box but dragged his finish wide of the near post when well placed.
Salah was excellent on the ball up against Alaba, before the defender was forced off through injury, and Liverpool were successful in manipulating Madrid’s defensive shape to get the ball to the Egyptian in space by having Salah drop deeper and wider.
The first time Liverpool got the ball to Salah in space, it led to the opening goal. He received a pass from Henderson, who provided an overlap and left Alaba two-on-one.
It allowed Salah to drive, unchallenged, to the edge of the box.
He finds the run of Darwin Nunez with a low cross, which was finished superbly.
This theme continued. A chipped pass from Courtois was intercepted by Henderson…
… who released Salah in behind the Madrid defence with a through ball.
The attacker tried to cut back inside but Alaba was able to do enough to allow a team-mate to clear the ball.
It was not the only time that routine nearly proved successful.
Following Vinicius Jr’s first goal, Liverpool created a great chance. This time Alexander-Arnold slid in Henderson.
He cut the ball back to Salah.
The Egyptian could not sort his feet out and Nunez was also unable to stab the ball home.
These were by no means the only examples of Liverpool having joy down the Real Madrid left. If they are to have any chance of pulling off the impossible, they will need more of the same, not to mention a clinical cutting-edge and defensive resolution.
It is the most daunting of tasks, but with Liverpool, the impossible can never be entirely discounted.
(Top photo: Visionhaus, Paul Ellis / Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)