Undoubtedly, the pick of the second round of the Champions League was the pairing of Liverpool and Real Madrid. Respectively, they are the most successful club teams from the two best leagues in Europe, the English Premier League and La Liga, and both are the envy of their competitors when it comes to their European record.
What is perhaps most surprising is that this is their first competitive meeting since the European Cup Final in Paris in 1981, where Liverpool won its third European Cup thanks to an Alan Kennedy goal.
There have been links between the two clubs in the intervening period. Steve McManaman made a Bosman switch to Real Madrid from Liverpool in 1997, Liverpool was invited to take part in Real Madrid's centenary tournament in 2002, and Michael Owen made his controversial switch to the Bernabeu in 2004.
But perhaps most will be made of the links to Rafa Benitez. Benitez is a self-confessed 'Madridista' and just this week suggested that he would want to end his career at Real Madrid. But he will undoubtedly be desperate to get one over on his old club, to prove that his success with Valencia against the might of Los Merengues was no fluke.
Pepe Reina vs. Iker Casillas —Casillas and Reina are Spain's first and second-choice keepers, and there is little between them in terms of ability and influence. What England would do to have such a predicament! Both will have to be on top form for their respective teams to have any chance of progress to the quarterfinals. What Casillas loses in stature, he makes up for with agility and positioning which is second to none, while Reina's ability to read a game and act as a sweeper has been a huge force behind Liverpool's resurgence and its frugal defence.
Fabio Cannavarro v Jamie Carragher —The defensive rocks about which their sides are built. Cannavarro has enjoyed an Indian Summer to his career this past 12 months following an uncertain start to life in Spain, and he seems to be benefiting from the experience of Gabriel Heinze beside him, in addition to the progression of Pepe. Carragher is arguably going through his weakest season since Benitez took charge of Liverpool in 2004, but he is still Liverpool's 'Mr Dependable' and can still be relied upon to stand taller than all around him when the going gets tough.
Steven Gerrard v Wesley Sneijder — It is in the attacking third of the pitch where the tie will be won and lost, and as such, these two players will be key to any success. What more can be said about Gerrard that has not already been said? Perhaps the only thing which may give Madrid an upper hand is that Gerrard is recovering from a hamstring injury and may not be 100 percent. But, even at 80 percent, he is better than 99 percent of his competitors. Sneijder, too, is still recovering from serious injury, but he is a true ball-player. He loves having the ball at his feet, and his passing and shooting are exemplary. Liverpool will have to stop Sneijder if it is to stop Madrid.
Javier Mascherano v Lassana Diarra — Diarra only arrived at Madrid in January, but already he has cemented his place in the team. It is surely no coincidence that Madrid have won every game since he joined. He has brought some much-needed stability and solidarity to the middle of the park, not to mention his fine range of passing and ease of movement around the pitch. Many would say that in Mascherano and Diarra we will be watching the two finest defensive midfielders in the world. What Mascherano lacks in technique, he makes up for in tenacity, and he is always the one who is still sprinting when the game enters the 88th minute. His commitment is second to none, and he, along with Dirk Kuyt, are the very models of 'Benitez-type' players: hard-working and selfless.
Fernando Torres v Raul — Much will be made of Torres' return to the home of his arch-rivals from his time at Atletico. Torres never won a game at the Bernabeu during his time with Atletico and he will be desperate to make an impact having missed the games with Atletico earlier in the season. Torres is just coming back into form after fitness as he starts to show again why he is the finest striker in world football. Where Torres is learning, Raul is the old master now. Seemingly having been around forever, Raul has enjoyed a resurgence of form in the past couple of seasons and is back to the poacher of old, a constant menace to opposition defenses. Raul has been there, done that, but he will undoubtedly be desperate to show Torres who the boss is.
There is, of course, the battle off the pitch, featuring Benitez against Ramos. Both are fine technicians and tacticians, and both have very precise methodologies which are drilled into their players over long periods of time. Benitez has had the advantage of time over Ramos, but with eight wins in succession, whatever Juande Ramos has done in his short time in Madrid appears to be working.
It will be tight, it will be passionate and it will lighten up two of the finest stadia for European football — the second leg at Anfield will be particularly fiery, loud and hair-raising.
My bet? Liverpool by a whisker...
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!