In an alternate universe, Liverpool play Real Madrid tonight but two of their world-class players – arguably two who are the very best in their position in world football – are lining up in the iconic all-white strip.
Fabinho and Alisson have been linchpins of Liverpool’s Champions League and Premier League successes in recent seasons.
Neither triumph likely happens without both of the pair in Jurgen Klopp’s team. It’s no coincidence that they were signed after Real Madrid’s victory against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev and that since, the club have won a seventh European Cup and a 19th league title.
Fabinho joined just two days after that 3-1 loss to Zinedine Zidane’s charges, with a deal done well in advance of the final, while Alisson arrived in July in a deal that briefly made the Brazilian the most expensive keeper of all time. Kepa Arrizabalaga then joined Chelsea for a bigger fee soon after.
But it all could have been very different, as the Liverpool No 1 was a target for Real Madrid before they recruited Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea instead in August.
Alisson had asserted himself as one of the game’s very best shot-stoppers with Roma, who Liverpool defeated in the Champions League semi-finals to set up their Ukraine showdown with Los Blancos.
But while Real Madrid were huge admirers, they stepped back to allow Liverpool to swoop in and sign the South American, whom Chelsea also liked.
Real president Florentino Perez was quoted as saying in mid-June of 2018: “Alisson to Real Madrid for €78M in Spanish press today? For this price, Liverpool can buy him.”
They did, and he’s been worth every penny since, with several vital performances helping Liverpool to win the club-level game’s two biggest prizes. His late save against Napoli to put the Reds into the knockout stages of the Champions League in 2018-19 is a milestone moment in all of their recent success.
Belgium first-choice Courtois has done well with 46 clean sheets in 115 games for the Spanish heavyweights, but he is not the same quality as Alisson, arguably the best keeper in the world.
And Alisson will be tasked with frustrating the in-form Karim Benzema this evening at the Alfredo Di Stefano Stadium, the Frenchman coming into this match with nine goals in his past seven games.
The 33-year-old – who profited from Loris Karius’ error in Kiev to make it 2-1 – has 24 goals and six assists in 33 games this season and is Real’s chief goalscoring threat.
If Liverpool can keep him quiet, and Alisson can expect to have to save a few shots from the exiled France international across the 180 minutes, then they stand a good chance of progressing.
And Alisson can prove that Real Madrid made a mistake not to stump up the cash to sign him before Liverpool did in the process, as the Merseyside outfit seek revenge for their last meeting.
Another player who’s primary objective will be to thwart Benzema will be midfielder Fabinho.
The long-legged Brazilian has been sensational since being restored to his preferred holding role and there is no finer No 6 on the globe than the man Jurgen Klopp’s assistant Pep Lijnders previously likened to a lighthouse.
The 27-year-old actually had a brief spell in Madrid with Real Madrid Castilla and racked up 30 appearances for Los Blancos’ B team in the Segunda Division as they finished eighth in 2012-13.
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Fabinho, who was on loan from Rio Ave at the time, was even handed a first-team appearance in a 6-2 win over Malaga at the Bernabeu and supplied the assist for Angel Di Maria’s goal.
But Real did not snap up Fabinho permanently and instead linked up with Monaco on back-to-back season-long loans, joining the Ligue 1 side permanently in the summer of 2015.
His five-year stint in France helped him develop into a fine player as he transformed from a right-back into a dynamic defensive midfielder, where he flourishes today for Liverpool.
Fabinho’s performances in the middle have been transformative for Klopp and co. in recent weeks with their first-choice anchorman having deputised as a makeshift centre-back before that. He will be vital if Liverpool are to enjoy a strong finish to the season domestically and in Europe.
And in the Spanish capital, he must ensure the still-inexperienced centre-half double act of Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak get the defensive support they need as Benzema roams freely.
His world-class ability in winning the ball back and recycling possession to start off counter-attacks could be vital for Liverpool in Madrid knowing Real will sit deep and look to frustrate the visitors whenever they are building their own attacks.
The add-on impact Fabinho’s return to midfield has had on the form of Thiago Alcantara, and the protection he will offer Gini Wijnaldum too, means the engine room battle against the likes of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro will be an intriguing watch.
“We have to give everything and play each game like a final. I think we can win this tie against Real Madrid – but we have to bring our best shape and best mood,” Fabinho told Sky Sports this week.
And like Alisson, Fabinho too can show Real Madrid firsthand that they were wrong not to bring him in, even though they have their own Brazilian destructor in Casemiro.
If Liverpool are to come out triumphant across the two legs, their goalkeeper and defensive midfielder will be vital. And they have the extra motivation of proving to Real Madrid that they were wrong not to sign them before Liverpool did.