UEFA Champions League first last16:  Liverpool welcome old foes Real Madrid

Familiar foes Liverpool and Real Madrid serve up a repeat of the 2021-22 Champions League final, when they renew hostilities at Anfield today for the first leg of their last-16 tie.

Jurgen Klopp’s crop placed second in Group A behind Italian powerhouses, Napoli, to set up a reunion with the holders, who beat Celtic, Shakhtar Donetsk and RB Leipzig to first place in Group F.

While Vinicius Junior’s winner and Thibaut Courtois’s sensational string of saves dominated the on-field talk of last year’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, the contest at the Stade de France will forever be overshadowed by the harrow­ing scenes of Reds supporters being penned in outside the gates and subjected to tear gas prior to the match.

Baseless allegations emerged from the authorities’ side of late-arriving fans with fake tickets causing the disruption, but an independent report has since cleared Liverpool supporters of any wrongdoing – insisting that the “primary responsibility” lies with UEFA – and Klopp’s loyal fanbase can look forward to Tuesday’s con­test with a renewed sense of hope.

Very few teams will proudly boast to get the better of Napoli this season, but only goal differ­ence separated the two sides in the Group A standings, as Liverpool collected 15 points from a possible 18, winning five in a row after their humbling 4-1 loss to the Parteno­pei on matchday one.

Back-to-back Premier League wins over Everton and Newcastle United – the latter coming courtesy of Darwin Nunez and Cody Gak­po’s efforts – means that a top-four finish is not beyond the realm of possibility for Liverpool, who ap­pear to have turned a corner after a disastrous start to proceedings in 2023.

Klopp’s team have suffered just one Champions League last-16 exit in the last five years – going down to Real’s near neighbours Atletico Madrid in 2019-20 – and Liverpool’s unbeaten run at Anfield now stands at a respectable seven games, but their wretched record versus their esteemed visitors is well-documented.

Leaving Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City in their wake en route to a record-extending 14th European Cup title, Real Madrid are never to be counted out in continental com­petition, even if their group-stage run was far from the perfect affair.

A draw with Shakhtar Donetsk and defeat to RB Leipzig threat­ened Los Blancos’ customary qual­ification as group winners, but a 5-1 thumping of Celtic on the final day saw the champions pip Leipzig to first place by just one point, and they have since added another Club World Cup title to their brimming trophy cabinet.

Carlo Ancelotti’s outfit secured their fourth successive win in all tournaments on Saturday, defeating Osasuna 2-0 in La Liga thanks to second-half strikes from Federico Valverde and Marco Asensio – having managed just a mere three shots on goal in the first half – but their hopes of successive La Liga and Champions League doubles are already hanging by a thread.

The gap to Barcelona at the top of La Liga stands at five points be­fore the Blaugrana play their game in hand against Cadiz on Sunday night, and Real’s patchy European form on the road also makes for pleasant reading for Liverpool fans, as Los Blancos have won just two of their last six Champions League contests away from home.

At the Deutsche Bank Park tonight,Eintracht Frankfurt and Napoli will also be looking to draw first blood in their Cham­pions League last 16 first leg showdown. —SportsMole

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