UEFA Champions League preview: Porto vs Liverpool
Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen! The Champions League is back this week from its winter hibernation. Come Valentine's Day, almost the entire footballing fraternity will have their eyes glued on the showpiece tie of the round (potentially even the tournament) in Madrid between Real Madrid and PSG. Liverpool and Porto fans, meanwhile, have a mouthwatering clash of their own to look forward to.
Liverpool will be eager to get the job done at Porto so that they can rest key players in the second leg at Anfield, ahead of a huge match against Manchester United the following weekend.
Porto and Liverpool lifted the Champions League trophy in 2004 and 2005 respectively, but have been meek in recent years. It has been nearly a decade since the last time Liverpool got past the Round of 16. For a club of this stature, that is simply unacceptable, and Jurgen Klopp will look to set things right beginning with the trip to Portugal.
Liverpool have met Porto four times in competitive matches and are unbeaten against the Portuguese side. The last time they faced each other was in the group stage of the Champions League in 2007-08. Fernando Torres scored a brace to lift Liverpool to a 4-1 win at Anfield.
They also won their previous tie at Anfield in 2001 courtesy of two goals without reply. However, they are yet to win at Porto, drawing 0-0 (2001) and 1-1(2007).
Team news and key players
Felipe is suspended for Porto, having been sent off against Monaco in the last match of the group stage. Ivan Marcano, Vincent Aboubakar, Danilo Pereira and Andre Andre are doubtful for the home side.
Emre Can will be a huge miss for Liverpool after he picked up his third booking of the season in the win against Spartak Moscow. Nathaniel Clyne is not yet back and Joe Gomez is also doubtful for the Reds. Virgil van Dijk is set to make his first Champions League debut for Liverpool.
If able to prove his fitness, Vincent Aboubakar will be the key man for Porto. He has scored 20 and set up five this season. He will be keen to take advantage of Liverpool's leaky defence and add to his tally of five Champions League goals.
Mohamed Salah is a bit of a boring pick for a key player (because it's so obvious) for Liverpool. So, we'll go with Roberto Firmino. Bobby, as he is called by fans, has scored seven goals in the Champions League (including one in the qualifying round) and 20 overall this season. To add to that, he has notched up an impressive 11 assists, the latest being a sublime back-heel to set up Salah against Southampton.
Liverpool's defence was their biggest threat in the group stage, epitomized in the 3-3 draw against Sevilla when they squandered a three-goal lead. Their attack, on the other hand, was terrifying opposition defences as they racked up the second highest number of goals ever in a Champions League group stage. Eventually, after much unnecessary drama, they went on to top the group.They won only one of their away games - a 7-0 thrashing of Maribor - and drew the other two.
Porto themselves confirmed their place in the knockout rounds only after a 5-2 win against Monaco on the last matchday of the group stage. They lost against Besiktas in the opening game at home but won the following two at the Estádio do Dragão.
Form and Stats
Porto have won their last three matches, and are unbeaten in the league this season. At home, they have been mightily impressive winning 10 of their 11 matches, and all of their last four (in the league).
Liverpool have recovered from back-to-back losses against Swansea and West Brom in late January with two wins and a draw in their last three matches. They have won three of their last five away matches (D1 L1). They are an entertaining side on the road and have both scored and conceded more goals away than at home.
Here's an interesting stat for you. The minutes 21 to 30 is when Porto have conceded the most percentage of their goals and when Liverpool have scored the most percentage of their goals. So, whatever you do, once the clock reaches 20, don't blink. (League stats; courtesy: footystats.org)
Besiktas are the only team to beat Porto at home this season. Porto's strong home form will prove to be a challenge for Liverpool, who will be a more balanced side now with van Dijk in the team.
The onus is on the front three, though, to get crucial away goals. Liverpool should have just about enough to overcome the Portuguese league leaders.
Porto 1-2 Liverpool