PARIS, February 24 – Liverpool's reputation for turning on the style in Europe will face the acid test on Wednesday when they face on-form Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
On a night that will notably see Liverpool’s domestic rivals Chelsea host Juventus, Real are looking good to strike the first blow in a two-leg encounter that gives the winners passage to the Champions League quarter-finals.
A 6-1 hammering of Real Betis on Saturday, complete with a brace apiece from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raul moved Real to within seven points of leaders Barcelona, who suffered a shock 2-1 derby defeat against Espanyol.
Despite Liverpool traditionally coming out fighting in Europe whatever their progress at home – an approach which led them to 2005 Champions League victory and a UEFA Cup title in 2001 – nine-time European champions Real are brimming with confidence.
While most Real players know the Reds are a far bigger threat than Betis, midfielder Rafael Van der Vart believes the Merseysiders will be running scared.
"We’re Real Madrid, which is why I think Liverpool are frightened of us," said van der Vaart.
"We are working hard to be in perfect shape. We’re anxious to do well in Europe, and I will do anything to win the Champions League."
Just how much Liverpool’s latest Premier League setback affects their self-belief ahead of a first leg in which scoring a precious away goal could be crucial to their plans remains to be seen.
A 1-1 draw with Manchester City on Saturday left Liverpool seven points behind reigning English and European Manchester United, and Rafa Benitez knows their dream of a first league crown in 19 years is now hanging by a thread.
"It is clearly more difficult for us now," said the Spanish coach.
To make things worse, influential captain and midfielder Steven Gerrard remains doubtful as he battles a hamstring injury which has sidelined him for the last three weeks.
Gerrard went through a light training session on Monday morning although a decision on whether he starts the first leg of the last-16 tie will be left until the last minute.
Chelsea’s newly-appointed Dutch coach Guus Hiddink appears to have won the hearts and minds of his reportedly troubled squad ahead of their meeting with the Juventus team of former coach Claudio Ranieri.
Hiddink, appointed following the sacking of Luiz Felipe Scolari, will take charge at Stamford Bridge for the first time Wednesday after leading his side to a 1-0 Premier league away win at Aston Villa.
Juventus sit second in the Serie A table nine points behind leaders Inter Milan and in recent days Hiddink has been preparing his players to cope with a more methodical, passing game.
"I was not totally happy with the performance at Villa and there are some things that I saw in the second half that we will have to work on before Juventus," said the Dutchman.
"Juventus have a different style and will present different problems. They will not use long balls. Their skills will be a problem."
Bayern Munich meanwhile are hoping to have Italian striker Luca Toni back from a heel injury for their away trip to Sporting Lisbon.
After an embarrassing 2-1 reverse at home to strugglers Cologne on Saturday Jurgen Klinsmann’s inconsistent German champions know Toni could bring a much needed tonic.
Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said the German giants need to buck up their ideas if they are to have any chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
"We’ve lost two in a row in the league, and we need to get out of this rut very quickly, starting with Wednesday’s game in Lisbon," said the Bayern boss.
In Wednesday’s other match Spain’s Villarreal host Greek side Panathinaikos.
Real Madrid v Liverpool
Chelsea v Juventus
Sporting Lisbon v Bayern Munich
Villarreal v Panathinaikos