Tonight, Liverpool take on Belgian side Genk in the Champions League in the first ever meeting between the sides. It’s an important one for all involved, but there will be one man playing for the hosts who will be looking to catch the eye.
Liverpool have started their Group E campaign somewhat inauspiciously, though they lie second in the group following their narrow win over FC Salzburg. Genk, for their part, recovered from an opening day thrashing to register a credible draw against Napoli. That result left the Belgians a mere two points behind Liverpool, ratcheting up the importance of tonight’s fixture.
In a team populated with relatively few superstar names, Ianis Hagi stands out. Forging his own reputation beyond the shadow of his father, Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi, Ianis joined Genk in the summer from Viitorul Constanța.
This slightly unfashionable choice surprised some, though it was made with the best interests of football development at heart. After a somewhat ignominious spell at Fiorentina, Ianis and his father were careful about the project they chose for his next foray out of Romania.
Domestically that choice has not been entirely vindicated, with Genk lying 10 points behind the Belgian league leaders. However, the Champions League experience promised has entirely come to pass. Hagi faces the six-time European Champions the day after turning 21 and will have designs on laying down a marker.
The Belgian league is not famed for its ability to retain prodigious talent, with the realisation of ability invariably resulting in a move. In their brief 31-year history, Genk has developed global stars such as Kevin de Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, accepting their role within the footballing food chain.
This is a path undoubtedly envisioned by Hagi, who will view such showpiece occasions as the perfect platform on which to dazzle. In his nine league appearances this season, Hagi has scored three times, averaging a goal every 138 minutes. Commendable though that return is in a slightly underperforming Genk side, this form hasn’t translated into the Champions League. Hagi has yet to score in the competition, though missed a gilt-edged chance to do so against Napoli.
That lack of return is partly due to profligacy, though also a reflection of the higher calibre of competition. Genk Coach Felice Mazzù was encouraged by Hagi’s performance against the Italian side, lauding his potential in the number 10 position. Should he occupy a similar space tonight, Hagi has the potential to rattle a Liverpool defence lacking Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joël Matip. Should he feel particularly mercurial, the Romanian may try to force a rust-induced mistake from Alisson Becker.
Make no mistake, Liverpool rolling into town represents the most illustrious home tie of Genk’s Champions League campaign. Should that not serve as ample motivation, a home win would take Genk above Liverpool in the group. Whatever the outcome, Hagi will want to be the headline-maker.