It’s never really been Jürgen Klopp’s forte to keep the Champions League group stages as simple as they could be.
A favourable group in his first season in charge saw the Reds throw away a 3-0 lead away to Sevilla. Their triumphant 18/19 season would not have been possible were it not for a crucial save from Alisson in the dying minutes of the game against Napoli – the same group where Liverpool lost all three of their away games. In recent times, the Reds have somehow managed to make it look easier to beat Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena than to hold onto a 3-0 lead against RB Salzburg at Anfield.
This season though, not only do Liverpool not have Napoli in their group, but they have benefited from their status as Premier League champions and subsequently being placed in pot one. Whilst last year’s quarter-finalists Atalanta will no doubt provide a challenge; few fans could have complained of being placed in an overly tough group given the incredible standards this side have set over the past couple of seasons.
It is crucial therefore that Liverpool take advantage of this. The hectic schedule of Premier League clubs has been an ongoing debate for seasons and this campaign will only exacerbate that given the impact of the pandemic.
Everybody who remained after the closing of the summer transfer window will have to play their part. Klopp’s substitution of the whole front three in a tricky away fixture to Ajax, when only 1-0 up is indicative that the German is more than aware of the demands of the schedule. Indeed, he has been amongst the most vocal when asked his opinion on the subject.
Liverpool’s win against FC Midtjylland, coupled with Atalanta’s fight back against Ajax, puts them in poll position in group D. The first two games have hardly been sparkling performances and there is arguable something to be said for the lack of a crowd on a European night more than in a league tie. A scrappy own-goal in Amsterdam gave the Reds their 1-0 win whilst the Danish champions held their own throughout the course of the 90 minutes at Anfield, holding Liverpool to a grand total of zero shots on target in the first half.
Nonetheless though, a fantastic move involving Shaqiri, and Alexander-Arnold – by far Liverpool’s best player on the night – allowed Jota to open the scoring before Mo Salah finished things off with a late penalty.Embed from Getty Images
There’s no getting away from the fact that Klopp would have preferred to rest the trusted trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino for a game against in-form West Ham. Unfortunately, they were called upon with the Senegalese and Egyptian coming on after sixty minutes whilst the Brazilian made a late cameo. The gaffer was quick to praise Midtjylland’s pressing game and work-rate, although it was evident from his behaviour on the touchline that he wasn’t happy with some of their challenges.
The back-up front four had somewhat of a mixed night. Last year, the gap between the favoured front three and the back-up was noticeable. Diogo Jota has not only bridged that gap already but, accounting for injuries, forced a change of system as Liverpool moved to a 4-2-3-1 for the past two games to accommodate him. Given that Thiago excelled in a midfield-pivot at Bayern Munich and Fabinho (barring injury) looks set to continue at centre-back for some time, it would be no surprise to see Klopp continue to make use of this system.
Likewise, Xherdan Shaqiri reminded everybody why Liverpool signed him. After not featuring much last season, it felt very much like the Swiss international had merely been a means to an end, providing ample back-up before being moved on to make way for others. However, he was one of the few sparks against Midtjylland, providing the catalyst that Liverpool were so desperately lacking before the opening goal.Embed from Getty Images
It’s worth remembering the Swiss international has provided some huge moments for Liverpool, not least his assist for Wijnaldum’s second and the Red’s third against Barcelona on that famous night. The quality is there, he just needs to show it on a more consistent basis.
By contrast, Divock Origi and Takumi Minamino didn’t do much to improve their current situations. With regards to the former, it might seem harsh but it feels like a few goals, albeit in the biggest games possible, have flattered to deceive slightly. A few bad performances of course won’t take away from his unique LFC legacy, but it feels as though the Belgian is really yet to convince the fan-base he is adequate cover for any of the front three.
The Japanese international is also yet to fully convince the fan base of his ability. Albeit he hasn’t been given as many chances as Origi, if he is being asked to play the same role as Firmino then it will take some time to adjust. Liverpool fans shouldn’t forget that it took time for the Brazilian to find his best position and that it is sometimes easy to let his hard work off the ball go unnoticed, especially when Salah and Mane are scoring goals left, right and centre. Thus far though, Minamino’s best performance at Anfield came when he was playing for RB Salzburg.Embed from Getty Images
Every game is big for the Reds, but the next three fixtures take on extra significance even this early in the season. Beating West Ham, Atalanta and Man City would put them in poll position in the Premier League and would give Klopp the opportunity to rest some key players for the remainder of the Champions League group stage. Regardless of the performance against the Midtjylland though, one thing is certain – everybody must step up.
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