McAteer – who played exactly one hundred times for his boyhood idols in a variety of positions ranging from centre midfield to right-back – is relishing the prospect of his club taking on the mighty Real Madrid in UEFA’s showpiece event at the weekend. Yet at the same time there are nerves aplenty at the challenge that lies ahead.
“It’s a fascinating match-up. Liverpool have stayed away from the big boys aside from City and this is their true test because it’s a one-off game. I always felt a two-legged Champions League tie played into Liverpool’s hands. People say Liverpool can beat anyone over ninety minutes but I’m not really having that: I’m having it over two legs. That’s when they can beat anybody because they get them back to Anfield. Psychologically the home game was always the winner for Liverpool, the banker.”
Though understandably apprehensive the 46 year old popular pundit is still encouraged by the unpredictable nature of Real Madrid’s rear-guard, most notably a ‘ticking time-bomb’ by the name of Sergio.
“Up front is where it’s going to be won or lost. Attacking-wise both teams have arguably the best front threes in Europe. The goals they score and create both teams are up there with the best this season. Their Achilles heels are at the back. Van Dijk has been brilliant since he’s come in and calmed things down so defensively they look more solid but I still think there’s a mistake in them. Madrid though are the same. I love Varane – I think he’s a Rolls Royce – but alongside him is a ticking time-bomb and you just don’t know what you’re going to get from Ramos. He could smash Firmino, Salah and Mane in the first minute, get a booking then get sent off ten minutes later. Or he could come up for a corner and get the winner. You just don’t know with him.”
“He can get dragged into areas he doesn’t want to be in and Firmino is clever and drops into holes and pulls players away to create space for Mane and Salah. That could be a game-changer if that happens because Ramos is prone to switching off and drifting.”
Should this occur and Mohamed Salah indeed find space then he will surely score because, judging by his season’s haul, that’s what the Egyptian does. With an incredible 32 goals from 34 Premier League starts the prolific striker has astounded one and all in 2017/18 and his searing form will presently be striking fear into Madrid hearts.
Yet despite being as bedazzled as everyone else McAteer still claims there has been a better Anfield poacher in recent years.
“You can’t get away from the stats that Mo has but I’d still buy Suarez over Salah. Don’t get me wrong Mo has had a brilliant season but Suarez has the x-factor. Salah is a little bit predictable – you know what he’s going to do but you still can’t stop it – but Suarez scores all kinds of goals. He could shoot from the halfway line or go past three or four players; he could bend one into the corner or put away a tap-in or score an overhead kick. You didn’t know what you were going to get and what I loved most about him was his appetite. I’m not saying Mo doesn’t have that too but it comes across differently. With Suarez he was a real fighter and you could tell he was from the streets. Mo doesn’t have that same glint in his eye”
While Salah is unquestionably the Reds’ greatest threat at the other end of the pitch Cristiano Ronaldo dos Santos Aveiro will be hoping to secure his fifth Champions League winners medal to put pride of place in his museum in Madeira. On this occasion the Portuguese legend will directly be competing against a teenager from West Derby, Merseyside, and while McAteer acknowledges the significance of Liverpool boasting a local lad in their ranks for such a huge game he also sees another source for inspiration.
“Trent Alexander-Arnold breaking through is really important because academies get by-passed sometimes and it’s easy for a manager in the clamour for success to go out and buy that number ten or tried and tested full-back. We all know that these days three or four defeats and you’re under pressure so it’s very difficult for a young player to get in and very difficult for a manager to pick him.”
“He’s still got a lot to learn and a lot to prove but it will show the others that they’ll get an opportunity if they work hard and do well. There must be nothing worst for an academy where no-one comes through and you all get shipped out at eighteen without getting a look-in. That must be demoralising. But seeing Woodburn, Brewster, and Trent in and around the squad they’ll believe they can do the same which is great.”
Looking beyond Kiev to a possible title challenge next season the ex-defender – capped 52 times for the Republic of Ireland – pinpoints two positions that he insists need strengthening to offer Jurgen Klopp’s side the best possible chance. McAteer begins at the very back with a keeper who has too often flattered to deceive.
“There is still a question mark over Karius for me. You look at the great teams who have won Premier League titles down the years and they had Seaman, Schmeichel, and they played a massive part: as star a player as the centre-forward. I don’t think Karius has that star quality. Alisson and Butland are the names being bandied about and the kid at AC Milan.”
“I’d also look for another centre-half. At Liverpool there is strength in all areas – in midfield and the front three pick themselves – but where they can get better is that centre-half position alongside Van Dijk. Someone of his stature who is not going to be make a stupid mistake. Apart from Van Dijk, Liverpool’s centre-halves all offer a mistake.”
Jason McAteer’s quick-fire questions
- Score prediction for Champions League final - I’m going 3-3 and a Liverpool win on penalties. More Champions league final odds
- First goal-scorer? Bale
- Who is your tip for the World Cup? Belgium