Álvaro Arbeloa knew. “When they opened up that little ball and the piece of paper inside said “Liverpool”, I said: ‘Group B’. I knew we’d be drawn against them. ” The Real Madrid defender smiles. “Well, I don’t know if I knew it or if I just really wanted it. ” Either way, there it was: Real Madrid v Liverpool. The last time the two teams met was in March 2009 and Arbeloa was on the other side. Liverpool won 4-0. Now he is going back to Anfield, this time dressed in white.
He got lucky; Xabi Alonso did not. Moments after the draw, the phone rang. “It was Xabi and he was fuming. “Bloody hell, typical. How unlucky am I?’” The only consolation Arbeloa could offer was to tell Alonso he might get there with Bayern Munich. Alonso knows what he’s missing; others don’t yet. So Arbeloa has told them.
“I’ve told everyone this is an opportunity they shouldn’t miss,” he says. “They’re used to a stadium that holds 80,000, sure, but Anfield is la bomba, unique. It’s only 45,000 and they say: ‘Well … ’ and I say: ‘Well?’ Those 45,000 make the atmosphere very, very special. I’ve told them to enjoy it. I can imagine what Anfield will be like, how they’ll sing You’ll Never Walk Alone and cheer every corner or throw-in close to our area as if it’ll end in a goal – and I know it’ll feel like that to us. ”
Arbeloa has not been back since he left in the summer of 2009, four months after that 4-0, and since then he has become a world and European champion with Spain, and won the Champions League with Madrid, helping them end a 12-year wait. He and they arrive as defending champions, the wait worth it. “I read an interview with Magic Johnson saying he and LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan had to go through shitty times before becoming champions; they had missed opportunities, too,” Arbeloa says. “I could relate to that. ”
It is a Thursday afternoon at Madrid’s Valdebebas training base and the Spaniard is looking over his career, exactly 10 years since he made his debut for the club, a youth-teamer alongside the galácticos. “My first touch was a backheel flick to Zidane, right in front of the dugout. Straight away it was: ‘play it simple! Simple!’. ” If that makes him laugh, so does his first Liverpool start after his move to England from Spain: a Champions League debut at the Camp Nou marking the man who, along with Arbeloa, made his competitive debut on 16 October 2004: Lionel Messi.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “I was training at Melwood and Rafa [Benítez] came over. ‘Left back’. Left? Marking Messi. I stood looking at him, waiting for him to start laughing. This has to be a joke but I saw he was deadly serious. I thought: ‘madre mía. ’ The idea was that I’d be strong on my right when Messi came inside, so we went to Portugal [for a training camp] and I was left-back every day, preparing.
Arbeloa grins. “ That was the famous golfing week … Rafa had given us a curfew: 1am or 2am. There was a lively di