Optimism, not euphoria – that is the prevailing mood at Real Madrid CF ahead of Wednesday's UEFA Champions League first knockout round opener with Liverpool FC, according to home coach Juande Ramos.
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Optimism, not euphoria – that is the prevailing mood at Real Madrid CF ahead of Wednesday's UEFA Champions League first knockout round first leg with Liverpool FC, according to the home team's coach Juande Ramos.
The clubs share 14 European Champion Clubs' Cups between them as well as 49 domestic titles, all of which will add to the sense of occasion at the Santiago Bernabéu. Talk of mutual respect has been staple fare, but Madrid look to have momentum on their side thanks to a run of nine consecutive league victories, culminating in Saturday's 6-1 demolition of visitors Real Betis Balompié. "I wouldn't say we're euphoric but we're optimistic because things have been going well," said Ramos. "Maybe some fans are euphoric but the attitude of the players is perfect."
In turmoil when the draw was made on 19 December, Madrid now believe they can rein in Liga leaders FC Barcelona having already reduced the gap from 12 points to seven. Likewise, continental hopes have been rekindled and the Spanish titleholders are desperate for their first UEFA Champions League quarter-final appearance since 2004. "That's important for the club," explained Ramos. "It's going to be very close, between two sides at a similar level. It will be decided by the small details and it's not going to be easy given we face a historic team like Liverpool."
Sacked by Tottenham Hotspur FC in October, Ramos insists he "has nothing to prove" as he renews acquaintances with English opposition and warned Liverpool they can expect a warm reception: "The Bernabéu has no reason to envy Anfield for atmosphere. We need the fans to help us get going and we know they'll be there." Influential winger Arjen Robben should also be present after recovering from a hip injury and Ramos can similarly call upon fit-again midfielders Guti and Wesley Sneijder, with the latter competing with Marcelo for a berth on the left.
For Liverpool, Steven Gerrard's hamstring injury continues to provide the major selection intrigue. "We'll decide after training, but the important thing is whether he can give us anything on the pitch," said manager Rafael Benítez. Should Gerrard feature, it would prove a huge boost to a team struggling for inspiration. Sunday's 1-1 home draw with Manchester City FC was the Merseyside club's eighth stalemate in 13 Premier League outings and left them seven points behind Manchester United FC – the same deficit facing Madrid but more indicative of decline than resurgence.
Despite that form, Liverpool will seek to match the outcome of their only other competitive encounter with Madrid – the 1981 European Cup final in Paris, settled by an Alan Kennedy strike. "You're talking about two of the biggest sides in Europe with lots of Champions Leagues between them," explained Benítez. "Big teams with big players." Having spent a large chunk of his career as a player and coach in Madrid's youth and reserve set-up, the 48-year-old is uniquely placed to make that judgement. "I have good memories here," he added, no doubt hoping Wednesday yields many more.