Liverpool $176m trio hold Jürgen Klopp key to getting the better of Real Madrid’s star man

Vinícius Jr will be keen to wreak havoc on Liverpool again, and Jürgen Klopp will require peak performances from a $176m trio in order to pin the Real Madrid man down.

The player of the match award is ultimately meaningless but often causes fierce debate. As Liverpool secured a vital 2-0 victory at Newcastle United to keep their Champions League dreams alive, eyebrows were raised as the host broadcaster chose Newcastle winger Allan Saint-Maximin as the game’s best player.

Liverpool’s sponsor Carlsberg made the more popular choice of Alisson Becker, who certainly caught the eye. The Brazilian stopper produced a string of world-class saves to preserve a clean sheet against a Newcastle side that threatened throughout despite the dismissal of Alisson’s opposite number Nick Pope.

And yet, a glance at the statistics suggests the award should have gone elsewhere. On both Sofascore (8.3/10) and Whoscored (8/10), the best player was Trent Alexander-Arnold. The man in direct opposition with Saint-Maximin was dribbled past only once while delivering a team-high four key passes and creating a game-high two big chances at the other end, including the assist to Darwin Núñez for the crucial opener that broke the game open.

Regardless of which player earned the post-match plaudits, the win on Tyneside was a true team performance in which there were many strong contributions, as evidenced by the slick passing interchanges that preceded both goals. Jürgen Klopp’s side achieved back-to-back league wins for the first time in 2023 and back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since October, to offer hope that the green shoots of recovery seen in the Merseyside derby can blossom into a successful campaign. Keeping both of those streaks alive into the Champions League last-16 encounter with Real Madrid will also require a team effort. It will also require another stellar performance from Liverpool’s right back, as he’ll be up against the opponent’s biggest threat once again.

The newly crowned world champions overcame Osasuna in La Liga hours after Liverpool’s victory at St. James’ Park. The points were secured without star striker Karim Benzema, rested ahead of Tuesday night’s clash at Anfield. The 2022 Ballon d’Or winner stole the headlines during Real’s improbable rampage through England en route to last season’s Champions League, and will surely loom large in Klopp’s pre-match plans. However, at 35 years old, the Frenchman doesn’t have the pace to run away from defenders or create his own chances. If Benzema is the venom that kills, Vinícius Jr is the slippery serpent that delivers the fatal blows.

Against Osasuna, the quicksilver Brazilian laid on the opener for Federico Valverde and would have added his own goal if not for an offside flag. A first assist in seven league games since the World Cup break doesn’t truly reflect his influence on matches, and a record of six goals and two assists from nine starts in cup competitions is a sign that he comes to life on the big occasions. He will be keen to put on a show at Anfield, free from the pressures of life in Spain.

On home soil, Vinícius has had to deal with all of the worst elements of the game, from brutal fouls to racism in the standstv studios and the press conferences. When such brutality is deemed an acceptable response to goal celebrations, it takes real courage to keep showing your skills, and to keep dancing. The team and his manager Carlo Ancelotti have rallied around him. This battle with Liverpool will be a great chance to refocus, reminding him of his crowning achievement so far — the winning goal in the Champions League final in Paris.

Alexander-Arnold will have very different memories of that night but will be equally up for the challenge. His duel with Saint-Maximin can act as an elite training course for facing Vinícius — another opponent with excellent dribbling ability, and a sharp change of pace and direction. The Frenchman may have carried the ball great distances and looked menacing, but Alexander-Arnold did a good job of forcing him into areas where Liverpool had cover, and relied on Alisson when he had to.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 30: Mohamed Salah of Liverpool with Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool and Jordan Henderson captain of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leicester City at Anfield on December 30, 2022 in Liverpool, England.

Offensively, he was back to his incisive best. Newcastle had no answer to his consistent threat, either swinging dangerous balls across the face of goal from the touchline that caused panic amongst the league’s best defense, switching the play to his perennial partner Andy Robertson or feeding balls into the paths of the strikers from a more central position, such as his assist for Núñez. Klopp will be pleased to see his homegrown superstar looking like himself again, but the German will take the most encouragement from the return of his telepathic triangle with Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah.

Liverpool’s other power trio has taken over from Klopp’s famous front three as the team’s driving force, and will need to operate at peak form to contain Vinícius on the left-hand side of Real Madrid’s attack.

Real is a team that can suffer for long spells in games and then takes them away in big moments. That night in Paris, Vinícius produced the moment when it mattered, despite Liverpool performing well against him for most of the match. Liverpool needed all three points of their triangle to do the job that day, and it will undoubtedly fall to the same men on Tuesday night. Luckily for Klopp, all three have shown signs of returning to their former glories after a shaky period. Before starting the derby with Everton on Monday night, Henderson had played just 64 minutes across four games in all competitions — his longest spell out of the team uninjured since a difficult debut season under Brendan Rodgers.

The rest appears to have done him good, with back-to-back displays where the intensity of his pressing returned. A man who always seems to enjoy his spicy reception from the Newcastle fans as a former Sunderland player, Henderson was nicking balls off of the toes of attackers, and crucially, was no longer lagging behind play when Eddie Howe’s team launched counter-attacks. The challenge will be to go again just 74 hours later against a high-caliber midfield fortified by Aurélien Tchouaméni — the man Liverpool hoped would eventually inherit Henderson’s midfield berth.

One could argue that FSG’s defeat in the transfer market was more damaging than the team’s defeat in the final, despite the lingering hangover that disappointment triggered. Liverpool and Real Madrid will likely go into battle again this summer for Jude Bellingham. Henderson will be keen to prove that he’s still capable at the highest level, as he did alongside Bellingham at Qatar 2022.

Jürgen Klopp makes Liverpool transfer promise as FSG 'sanctions' double  '$198m' deal -

If Klopp is looking for inspiration and motivation, he can show his team the tape of the last time Los Blancos came to Anfield. A goalless draw ultimately put paid to Liverpool’s Champions League campaign in 20/21, after a disastrous first leg in which Vinícius inflicted pain and embarrassment on Alexander-Arnold and a crumbling Liverpool defense in a 3-1 win. However, in the second leg, the Scouser had the upper hand, despite a makeshift center-back pairing of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak alongside him.

Liverpool’s problems that night were at the other end. A host of presentable chances went begging, with Salah the main culprit. For the Egyptian, matches against Real Madrid will always mean something more. Memories of his tearful early exit from the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv were clearly fresh in his mind entering the Paris rematch. Those emotions worked against him that day, and the hope is that the joy that appears to be returning thanks to his burgeoning relationship with Núñez will be enough to bring back the killer instinct.

Liverpool will have their work cut out against European and World Champs, littered with the world’s best players. Klopp will be desperate to use this momentum to continue the run of wins and the run of clean sheets, but he would be pleased with either if he can’t have both. To achieve that task, Liverpool must hope their elite triangle, valued at $176m (£147m/€165m) by Transfermarkt, can contain Real Madrid’s Brazilian diamond.

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