When deliberating over European football’s most prestigious and illustrious names, the identities of a select group of clubs dominate the mindset. Real Madrid justifiably top that list, with AC Milan and Liverpool completing a trio of institutions which, having won the ‘Champions League’ on five occasions, lay claim to ownership of a European Cup. Ignore individual celebrities, stadium dimensions and global marketing ploys – this quintet of ultimate victories serves as the only mark of greatness. As a consequence, when the paths of any of these clubs cross in a competitive fixture, the eyes of the footballing world are upon them. Liverpool have played AC Milan in two Champions League finals in the last four years, although despite comparable records in the European Cup, Real Madrid have not been regular opponents for Liverpool in recent years. Indeed Liverpool’s only previous European Cup tie against Real Madrid was the final of 1981. That game ended in a 1-0 victory for Liverpool. The ‘Super Sixteen’ round of this year’s competition has seen the two heavyweights drawn against each other again, with Liverpool supporters hoping for a similar outcome against the Spanish champions.
An estimated ten thousand Liverpool supporters travelled to Madrid for the first leg, hoping to witness a famous encounter. A little bored of the monotony of ‘in-and-out’ trips to see Liverpool in Europe, I opted for an extended venture this time around. The prospect of watching Atletico Madrid’s tie at home to the Portuguese champions only added to the sense of expectation. Complications over the fixture list inspired UEFA to ignore their own policy of avoiding having two fixtures played in the same competition in the same Togel Hongkong city on consecutive nights. That meant that Liverpool’s match against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu would come just twenty-four hours after FC Porto’s match against Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon Stadium. Pockets of Panathinaikos supporters were also in the city for the first fixture, taking a detour before their match at Villarreal on Wednesday.
Having already been to watch Atletico this season, only a handful of Liverpool supporters opted to attend the Porto match on Tuesday night. I decided I would try to gain entry in the familiar away section. It was not the first time I had been ‘away with FC Porto’. As a nineteen-year-old I spent a winter month inter-railing across Spain, Portugal and Morocco, and on an impromptu visit to FC Porto’s ground I noticed a queue forming. Intrigued and hopeful as to why, I joined it, and when I made it to the front, repeated the same simple line uttered by those ahead of me, passed over the same fee and was handed the same thing – a match ticket. The following night I was bouncing around the away end of Lisbon’s famous old Stadium of Light watching Benfica V FC Porto. It was my first exposure to European football, and after that experience I had the bug.
The Portuguese were well represented off the pitch as well as on it, with a passionate away support, clearly motivated in part by the relatively localised rivalry, cheering on an impressive Porto team. Although the home side took an early lead through Maxi Rodriguez, they failed to control an inventive Porto team. Diego Forlan restored the home side’s advantage, after Lisandro twice drew the two-time European champions level. The 2-2 final score has set up an intriguing second leg at the Estadio do Dragao in a fortnight’s time, with the scenario at the halfway mark surely favouring FC Porto.
The following night, Liverpool entered the famous Bernabeu supposedly a club in disarray. The prospect of playing a Madrid team who had won the last nine matches in all competitions was supposed to frighten the men from Merseyside, who had won just two from their previous nine. A team of talented and experienced players playing in front of 85,000 ‘Real’ fans were supposed to add to the complexity of the task facing Liverpool. Furthermore, reports that Liverpool’s Madrid-born manager was about to resign dominated the press leading up to the match, with some suggesting that leading bookmakers had suspended betting on Rafael Benitez parting company with the club. As our challengers often discover to their cost however, diversity is not a state that crushes Liverpool’s resolve, but strengthens it. A wry smile spread across my face as I read the reports, knowing that the situation would surely be used in our favour. I had seen Liverpool win at Inter Milan last season and at Barcelona the season before, when others had conspired to spoil our chances of success.
Liverpool’s stuttering league form may have slowed the momentum of their push for the league title this season, but one defeat in thirty-two Premier League and Champions league fixtures this season pointed to an inevitable outcome in the Bernebeu. The team were quietly confident. The fans were equally confident, but were far from quiet. The famous ground rocked to the famous sounds of Liverpool for nearly three hours, as Benitez’s resolute team refused to concede any real clear chances to the home side. Yossi Benayoun scored the game’s only goal eight minutes from time, although the collective performance warranted at least a second Liverpool goal. Nevertheless the game and its result provided a timely reminder that Liverpool are the force to be reckoned with this season, and that in European competition, Rafael Benitez is simply the best in business. Rome anyone?