Zidane’s greatest strength shines through as unlikely heroes guide Real Madrid past Liverpool

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Match statistics: Liverpool 0-0 Real Madrid

Real Madrid may have spent the night at the Titanic hotel upon their arrival on Merseyside, but it was Liverpool who sank on Wednesday, with Zinedine Zidane’s patched-up side sailing through to the Champions League semi-finals.

On the 109th anniversary of the maritime disaster, Madrid dropped anchor at Anfield and would not let Jurgen Klopp’s heavy-pressing side be the iceberg they proved for rivals Barcelona two seasons ago.

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Like the Catalans, Madrid took a lead to Merseyside, a 3-1 first-leg advantage. But the Blancos only had one of their first-choice defenders available in Ferland Mendy.

With Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez injured, and Alvaro Odriozola regarded a menace to his own side by Madrid coach Zidane, Fede Valverde started as a makeshift right-back.

Without injured captain Sergio Ramos and the imperial Raphael Varane, Madrid paired Nacho and Eder Militao together again and hoped for the best.

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Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to produce two top-drawer saves in the opening stages, as Liverpool tried to take advantage of Uruguay midfielder Valverde’s inexperience in defence.

The Belgian reacted well to deny Mohamed Salah after he was set up by Sadio Mane, and then clawed away a James Milner curler which was ducking into his top corner.

After weathering the initial storm, Madrid found balance slowly but surely, and Karim Benzema rattled the post to warn the hosts, while first leg man-of-the-match Vinicius Junior burst into life now and then on the counter.

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In a deliberately grey and stern performance from Los Blancos, he was the one Madrid player to offer bright moments of flair. For everybody else, it was just business.

Zidane looked on approvingly as Casemiro scythed Milner down to the ground, showing Madrid were not going to cower in the wake of Liverpool’s impressive first-half energy.

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Reds’ supporters will argue they were down to the bare bones too in defence, but Nacho and Militao’s superb defending helped keep their attacking trident at bay.

Salah, Mane and Firmino, while not at their best in 2021, are still one of the world’s most dangerous frontlines and, with the superb Casemiro as a shield, Madrid’s defence was able to hold them off.

Valverde produced a crucial block from Firmino in the second half to maintain Madrid’s two-goal advantage and stop any wobbles before Courtois denied Salah again in stoppage time to kill Liverpool’s last hopes.

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The ex-Chelsea goalkeeper has never lost at Anfield and he was not about to start now. His reward – a confrontation with his former employers from west London.

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On paper, the hosts should have been able to breach Madrid’s defence, but Zidane’s superb management has galvanised the team’s back-ups.

One of the greatest man-managers in the game, he has geed up even those players who have spent the season on the fringes – Odriozola aside.

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Like after the restart last season, Madrid have reached the run-in ready to grind their way towards glory. Without Eden Hazard, they have no great creator to supply Benzema, so Zidane is sticking to what he knows works.

And it did at Anfield, with a dour, professional second half just what the doctor ordered for the record 13-time champions.

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Nacho and Militao were impressive enough to make Ramos sweat over his contract demands, while Valverde passed his personal test.

With Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro immovable in midfield, Valverde will take game-time where he can get it, as long as he can play a part in Madrid’s charge towards a potential double.

And after the perfect week, that quest remains firmly on course.

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