April. A key league clash against the title winners of three of the last four seasons, with the gap at the top of the table still small. Away against Pep Guardiola. Liverpool may think they are in uncharted territory, but in fact, that’s exactly the situation Real Madrid found themselves in towards the end of the 2011/12 season – and they may have some lessons for Jürgen Klopp.
Barcelona had rightly earned an enviable reputation over the previous years, conquering everything before them, including Jose Mourinho’s side. Remarkably, Real Madrid had lost six of seven league encounters against the Catalans since Guardiola took charge of their rivals almost four years previously, drawing the other. The odds seemed against them as they faced a trip to the Nou Camp.
It’s not a perfect parallel to Liverpool’s current situation. Real Madrid had the luxury of traveling with a four-point advantage rather than a one-point deficit, and there were four games left instead of eight. Even so, the many similarities certainly make this game an interesting model for defeating Guardiola in a crisis.
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Mourinho even seemed to have a grip on the weather that day, with torrential downpours no doubt detracting from the neat and intricate football that Guardiola had honed at Barcelona. A quick look at the predictions suggests Klopp won’t be so lucky – not that he necessarily wants to lower the quality of football anyway. However, he can borrow a few other tricks from the Real Madrid box.
The first big chance of the match showed exactly where Real Madrid could be celebrating. An outgoing corner from Mesut Özil infallibly found the head of Cristiano Ronaldo, whose powerful header had to be knocked over the bar by Víctor Valdés.
Liverpool scored most goals from set pieces this season, so they will certainly see that as a potential route to goal. By contrast, Manchester City have been extraordinarily tight in such situations, conceding only once. As such, this is designed to be a key battleground.
If Klopp is to find a flaw in Guardiola’s free-kick armour, it’s unlikely to come from a Ronaldo-like header. Virgil van Dijk may have an equally commanding aerial presence, but for all his mastery of set pieces this season, Liverpool have derived most of their joy from second balls. It was very visible in how Real Madrid finally found the breakthrough on that night in 2012.
Another corner, this time an inswinger from Ángel Di María on the other side, fooled Valdés. He started to pick up the ball before changing his mind, rushing back to prevent a header from Pepe. His failed save fell into a dangerous zone, and Carles Puyol’s failure to clear was attacked by Sami Khedira. Fellow defensive midfielder Fabinho has been among the goals lately, so maybe he’s keen to return to such a role at the Etihad.
Between these two corners from Real Madrid, there was a reminder of the important role Alisson will play. Man City are bound to create openings, as any Guardiola side inevitably will. In 2012, it fell to Iker Casillas to allow his side to maintain a brave high line nonetheless, and he was very quickly out to stifle a Dani Alves opening shortly before the breakthrough.
Casillas had to be sharp again to deny Xavi an equalizer, quickly closing the angle after a sumptuous pass from Lionel Messi cleared the midfield. In the second half, Christian Tello horribly skewed a clear chance high and wide, after being released by a certain Thiago Alcântara – a reminder to Liverpool that any side wishing to beat Guardiola will likely have to ride their luck a bit too.
An equalizer finally came. After Tello fended off another chance, a cross shot inside the Real Madrid penalty area from the rebound eventually found its way to Alexis Sánchez at the far post. On the contrary, Guardiola’s affinity for wide half-spaces has only grown in the decade since, and Liverpool will have to do a better job than Real Madrid of preventing deliveries from those areas.
Still, if Liverpool face adversity at some point, as seems almost inevitable, they will certainly want to replicate Real Madrid’s response. It took two minutes and 19 seconds for the lead to be restored, with Ronaldo on the spot to convert a fine through ball from Özil from the right flank.
Guardiola thrives on control, and he simply cannot be allowed to. Liverpool must do everything in their power to capture that most elusive concept, momentum. Quick responses in the style of Ronaldo’s punch are vital.
As for the specific nature of the Real Madrid winner, Klopp will certainly be hoping to make similar use of the space behind. He has his own right-hand magician, and Alexander-Arnold will have to compete with the creative presence of peak Özil.
From there it was a typical Mourinho final. Ronaldo twisted on the ground after a harmless incident with Alves. The defense deepened, with counter-attacks the order of the day. A resolute defensive line eventually forced Barcelona to resort to pot shots from Javier Mascherano from 40 yards out. Liverpool may well need to soak up some pressure and show that kind of in-game intelligence and match-craft if they are to secure a valuable victory.
Real Madrid won the league, with Guardiola leaving for new pastures at the end of the season. Kicking him out of Manchester altogether might be a bit too much to hope for, but Liverpool would certainly be content to replicate the result of a decade ago, and they may have already been shown how to do it.