A tie dripping with European heritage, the meeting between 13 time champions Real Madrid and six time winners Liverpool might just be the tightest of the Champions League's quarter-finals. Both teams have endured their ups and downs this season, have had to soldier on without transformative center backs but have found some semblance of form ahead of tonight's first leg.
It makes for an intriguing match up with convincing cases to be made for both sides. Here CBS Sports' soccer editor Mike Goodman and soccer insider James Benge debate which team will come out on top over the coming week.
The case for Real Madrid
The case for Real Madrid is more mystical than statistical. Really, you can break down all the numbers (and I'm about to) but the bottom line is that Madrid often just find a way to win in the Champions League, even when they're not at their best. And it's not that real Madrid are bad per se, it's just that compared to their own lofty standards they aren't really that good. They're averaging only 1.75 xG per match in La Liga, that's their lowest total since the 2009-10 season. They make up for it by being a pretty strong defensive team, conceding only 0.97 xG per match, their third best total of the past decade. Boring, but good defensively is not how Madrid typically go through life.
That said, it's a way to win. And while they're going to be without star center back Sergio Ramos, they've managed to put up those grind you down numbers with Ramos only on the pitch for a little over 1200 league minutes this season. Ramos is important to Madrid, but they've managed to turn themselves into a good defensive side with only intermittent contributions from him this season. Although the task becomes harder still with the late breaking news that Raphael Varane will miss Tuesday's match after testing positive for COVID-19.
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Grinding out defensive performances while depending on Karim Benzema to find a moment of magic at the attacking end isn't the worst way to go about beating Liverpool. Benzema is having one of the best years of his career. He's scoring 0.74 goals per 90 minutes, the most in his career since 2015-16 and while his xG per 90 is slightly lower at 0.64 that's still his best total in that category since 2016-17.
He's doing all that scoring while taking the most touches he's taken per 90 since 2011-12 and playing the most passes per 90 of his entire career at Madrid. Benzema waited his whole career to get to be the main man at Madrid, and he's grown into the role incredibly over the last several years. His eyes will absolutely light up at the chance to peel away to the back post and get one over on whichever underwhelming center back Liverpool tasks with sticking to him.
Add to Benzema the aging but agile pairing of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric who will work to keep the ball away from Liverpool's press without trying to do anything risky and you have a recipe for success. If Madrid can keep the ball away from Liverpool's press, they'll effectively make Jurgen Klopp's men chasing the ball for 90 minutes, even as Zinedine Zidane's team isn't too worried about actually scoring the rock themselves, and then all it takes is a moment of magic from Benz, and Liverpool will be looking at a whole they need to dig themselves out of.
One further reason this might work is that Liverpool are more reliant on the ball than they've ever been. Thanks to their rash of defensive injuries, they've been reluctant to either play open up and down matches or invite pressure and counterattack. This season Liverpool are attempting over 657 passes per match and completing them at a clip of over 85%, both the highest of Klopp's tenure at Liverpool.
All of which is to say that if Madrid can keep the ball and Benzema eventually gets a chance to do his thing, then it will be a long night for Liverpool. - Mike Goodman
The case for Liverpool
Right, let's get this out of the way first of all. The case against Liverpool is clear cut. The most generous thing one could say about the center back pairing of Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips is it is utterly untested at this level: the former signed in a panic from Schalke as injuries bit hard, the latter having spent last season on loan in the second tier of German football. However if Jurgen Klopp's side play as they can those two defenders may remain untested for much of this tie.
Their midfield three have always served as a bulwark against the defense, shepherding opponents away from center backs as though Phillips and Kabak were the eccentric elderly relatives at a family get together. "Uncle Nathaniel's not well enough to meet guests I'm afraid, have you met cousin Thiago?" Liverpool are good at keeping the ball and excellent at winning it back, only high pressing acolytes Atalanta and RB Leipzig made more ball recoveries since the group stage than the English champions.
Much of that work is done by full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson along with press conductor Georginio Wijnaldum. All three have looked far more effective in the Champions League than Premier League, playing at a slightly higher pace against teams who are prepared to do more than sit back, hope that Roberto Firmino misses a hatful and then nick one on the break. Equally the two defenders have taken an almighty step forward in recent weeks since Fabinho moved forward from his auxiliary center back role to anchoring the midfield.
With the Brazilian back in his spot everything just clicks, as Liverpool showed in their excellent dismantling of Arsenal on Saturday. They have so many ways to beat you. Robertson and in particular Alexander-Arnold can put the ball on a sixpence from the flanks. Thiago looks to be the schemer of old -- easily a match for the ageing Kroos and Modric -- now that he isn't having to do dirty work further back down the pitch. And should you dawdle in possession near your own goal Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are still the best at the business when it comes to stealing your ball and sticking it in the goal moments later.
And should you happen to weather the initial storm of Mane and Salah, Klopp may yet have the competition's outstanding super sub in Diogo Jota, though the Portuguese forward has performed so well off the bench this season that he is vying with Firmino for a starting spot. There is a strong logic to keeping the former Wolves man in reserve; Jota offers the versatility to replace whichever of the front three is fading and has the pace, leaping ability and finishing prowess to punish Madrid off the bench.
Liverpool do not take many shots (of the last 16 sides only Porto and Borussia Monchengladbach had fewer) or score goals at the same volume they did in the 2018-19 season but that is partly because they have refined their craft, learning the best way to get the shots they want from the right players in Europe. Only Chelsea take a higher proportion of their shots inside the box, the sole striker left standing in the competition with a better shot conversion rate than Salah is Erling Haaland and the Egyptian has actually missed a lot of chances he would usually score in this season's Champions League. That cannot last long.
In short, Liverpool know what they're doing. Klopp is not about to tinker with a back three or rearrange his frontline on a consistent basis. Now that they have their best players back in their natural positions the Premier League champions are humming like they did as they ground their way to the summit of English football last season. It is an effective mix. - James Benge