Plenty to look forward to as Liverpool return to the Champions League knockout stage
The business end of the Champion’s League is upon us and nothing gets better than this elaborate extravaganza where Europe’s elites take on each other. For years now, the raucous atmosphere at Anfield hasn't got to witness the knockout stages for the Champions League. While the Europa League run in 2016 saw Liverpool pull off some incredible results, the fans have yearned for the Champions League nights.
European competitions have often seen the best of Liverpool and one only has to go back to Klopp’s first season, when Dortmund went 3–1 up in the return leg at Anfield with 33 minutes remaining, requiring Liverpool to score three goals due to the Away goals rule. Goals from Philippe Coutinho, Mamadou Sakho and a last-minute winner from Dejan Lovren, however, saw Liverpool complete the comeback and qualify for their first European semi-final since 2010.
Liverpool didn’t go on to win the Europa League, but it is their ability to rouse themselves from the dead, that makes them one of the most feared teams in Europe. Liverpool travel to Porto for their last 16 knockout tie and Klopp will look to carry on their domestic form against a side which currently leads their domestic league by 2 points with a game in hand.
Firmino to the fore
After the transfer saga of Philippe Coutinho, who finally left for Barcelona, Klopp’s charges have shown that they are not too bad a team without the mercurial Brazilian. Instead, it is the other Brazilian -- Roberto Firmino -- who has waltzed into the role of the tormentor in chief.
The Brazilian has found a new lease of life after the departure of his fellow Brazilian and has shouldered the additional responsibility with aplomb. At St. Mary’s on Sunday, the Brazilian’s performance drew quite a lot of plaudits again. The lethal one-touch finish combined with the exquisite backheel to free fellow attacker Mohamed Salah had the crowd on their feet. And this was not the away end crowd specifically, the beauty of the skill drew appreciation from large sections of the home crowd as well.
Work ethic and the ability to put in a defensive shift signifies the philosophy of Klopp’s pressing game. Firmino defends from the front and it is his ability to read passes and intercept them that creates further opportunities for the team. At times, his way of putting himself between ball and man makes it difficult for the defence to play out from their own half which has resulted in the opposition side making mistakes.
Attacking displays undermined by the defence
Alongside, the likes of Sadio Mane and the electric Mo Salah, Liverpool have been flying in the league where their propensity to leak goals has been matched by their audacious scoring record.
Liverpool are the second most scorers in the league with 61 goals which makes them very exciting to watch and in the same breath their defensive record of 31 goals scored which makes for jittery fans.
The neutrals though have hardly complained such is the frantic nature of Liverpool’s defensive display. Similarly, in Europe, Liverpool topped their group with 23 goals scored but the 6 goals that they conceded does give their opposition hope. Lest we forget, 3 goals out of that 6 were conceded in a single half against Sevilla.
Virgil van Dijk, the Dutch international, was purchased in the January transfer window as Liverpool smashed the transfer record by making him the most expensive defender in the world. Despite that, Liverpool have continued to leak goals and for the first time since the Dutchman’s move, the Reds kept a clean-sheet this past weekend.
Klopp has reiterated time and again as have several observers that Liverpool need to defend as a team. Additionally, the need to maintain a calm demeanour and nerves makes for a composed defensive unit. Individual errors have also not helped, however as Klopp pointed out recently, the team is constantly evolving, and Liverpool have defended quite stoutly in recent games.
Liverpool travel to Portugal on the back of a comfortable victory at the weekend. They were largely untroubled for the majority of the game and Southampton looked to be growing in confidence before the second goal on the stroke of half-time put waste to their best-laid plans. On the evidence of that display, Liverpool will look to carry that sort of form to Estádio do Dragão.
The Sergio Conceicao outfit are a well-drilled team and have the best defensive record in their league having conceded a mere 10 goals this season. That aside, they have two goal scorers in the form of Moussa Marega and Vincent Aboubakar who have scored between themselves 31 of the 53 goals this season in the league. Not to be outdone Liverpool have their own attacking trio who have been involved in 58 out of the 61 goals scored in the league this term.
In the end, though over the two legs, the defensive displays of both sides that will probably decide the course of this time. Richard Jolly in his column with ESPNFC, “Porto and Liverpool never built on their Champions League glory”, recently pointed out how both these clubs failed to build on their respective Champion’s League success in the years 2004 and 2005 respectively.
Much water has passed under the bridge since those glory days as both these clubs have continued to be feeder clubs to Europe’s elite clubs. Loss of premium players and financial constraints have contributed to their stalled growth as well. However, this may be the chance to prove their doubters wrong as they look to wriggle out of the feeder club tag and take their place at the table with Europe’s elite clubs.
Porto probable XI
Iker Casillas, Diego Reyes, Alex Telles, Iván Marcano, Felipe, Yacine Brahimi, Ricardo Pereira, Paulinho, Héctor Herrera, Moussa Marega, Vincent Aboubakar
Liverpool probable XI
Lloris Karius, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Virgil Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, James Milner, Henderson, Wjinaldum, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino