“Make us Dream”, read the banner held up by Liverpool’s away fans during their 3-0 triumph at Old Trafford last season, but ultimately the Reds woke up in a cold sweat, beaten to their 1st Premier League triumph in 25 years by Manchester City.
The 2nd place finish did, however, earn them an automatic spot in this year’s Champions League, and with it an epic Group B match-up with reigning champions Real Madrid. But while some supporters might be excited at hosting Europe’s most successful club at Anfield tonight, the data suggests they could be in for a restless evening.
The top line facts do not bode well for Brendan Rogers’s men; Real Madrid have scored more goals than any other club in Europe this season – notching 37 in La Liga and Europe. Meanwhile, shaky Liverpool have only achieved a clean sheet once in their last 10 matches.
Those figures don’t tell the whole story. Liverpool haven’t exactly been goal shy this season – averaging 2.9 goals per game in the league and Europe to Madrid’s 3.1, but have leaked an average of 2.7 per game with their Spanish opponents letting in 1.0.
With Gareth Bale ruled out through injury, Liverpool’s backline will focus their attention on Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, and a centre forward likely to be Karim Benzema or Javier Hernandez. They might want to be extra watchful early on in the game, as Real average 1.7 goals in the first half of matches – they fired 4 before the break in last month’s 5-1 thrashing of Basel.
The Liverpool rearguard should be mindful not to soak up too much pressure, and to clear the ball with care. The Merseysiders’ opponents average 22.2 ‘dangerous events’ per game as a result of clearances from the defence this season – compared to 15.7 for teams playing against Real Madrid.
Indeed, an even closer look supports the assertion that Liverpool have trouble with 2nd balls played into the box during attacks. While both Liverpool and Madrid’s opponents average the same number of ‘dangerous events’ from 2nd balls into the box (1.3), Liverpool’s opponents this season have averaged 0.4 goals per game from this form of attack, compared to 0.0 from Madrid’s opponents.
The pressure is building on Liverpool boss Rodgers to address Mario Balotelli’s poor run of form, which has produced only one Champions League goal this season. If Rodgers replaces him at the fulcrum of Liverpool’s attack with the imposing Ricky Lambert, we might see Liverpool take a more aerial route than their traditional passing style of build up play.
Liverpool (51.3) and Madrid (56.6) compare similarly in terms of their number of ‘passing style’ build-up moves per match this season, but Liverpool show more tendency to launch the ball long, with an average of 7.3 build-up moves per game using the long ball, contrasted with Madrid’s 4.6. With the inclusion of Lambert in their starting XI, we may see this average increase.
So a fascinating fixture between two giants of European awaits. And although Real come into the match as favourites on foreign soil, Liverpool’s heritage in the competition, typified by their famous Istanbul 2005 comeback, means for now the dream is still alive.