Mohamed Salah should be fit to feature against the exciting Italian outfit at Anfield on Wednesday night, where victory for Jürgen Klopp’s side would maintain there 100pc record in Group D, earning them a place in the Round of 16 of Europe’s premier club competition for a fourth season running.
Meanwhile, three points for the hosts, paired with Ajax failing to beat Midtjylland in Amsterdam, would be enough to secure top spot in Group D. Not that Klopp was in the mood to discuss such possibilities in his Tuesday pre-match press conference.
As usual, the German’s focus was firmly on the task at hand. Beating Gian Piero Gasperini’s team looks a challenge as enticing as it is tough – regardless of the 5-0 win achieved in Bergamo three weeks ago.
Within the group, Liverpool are in about as good a position as they could hope to be at this stage.
They head into Wednesday’s matchday 4 meeting with three wins from three so far – having scored eight and conceded none in the process. Ajax away and Midtjylland at Anfield were beaten 1-0 and 2-0 respectively, prior to that barnstorming display in Italy.
Sunday’s superb 3-0 Premier League win over Leicester City should represent another source of confidence, even if the injury list remains a long one. More on that to come.
The Serie A outfit could be seen to have a contrasting set of issues.
Their early results have been more mixed. One win, one draw and one defeat in the Champions League so far has them third in the group – just behind Ajax on goal difference. They also sit seventh in an admittedly tight Serie A table, following a surprising 0-0 draw at newly promoted Spezia on Saturday evening.
They do, though, look in better shape fitness-wise than when they welcomed the Reds to the Gewiss Stadium on November 3, with several players returning including star player Josip Iličić.
Aside from confirming that Salah had been in Monday’s training – after the forward’s period of self-isolation in Egypt that followed a succession of positive COVID-19 tests – Klopp remained relatively coy on the availability of others when facing the media on Tuesday.
While the Egyptian was present once again, the makeup of the group session later that afternoon suggested that there would be few other returnees on Wednesday night.Embed from Getty Images
Naby Keïta was absent after he was forced off with an apparent hamstring issue on Sunday, while there was also no sign of captain Jordan Henderson or Thiago Alcântara as they continue to nurse thigh and knee issues respectively. It is hoped that Thiago is close to a return, though.
Xherdan Shaqiri remained absent, following the identification of a muscle problem in training late last week. Roberto Firmino was another who wasn’t part of the session, although it is understood that the Brazilian is fit to play.
Centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez are still in the relatively early stages of rehabilitation following their respective knee operations and Trent Alexander-Arnold isn’t expected to return from a calf problem, which saw him substituted against Manchester City, until early to mid-December.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wasn’t present either, but he has been back doing individual work on the grass in recent days as he aims to complete his recovery from the knee injury he sustained during pre-season.
Nonetheless, the Merseysiders still have plenty of quality within their ranks. They will be determined to continue to showcase that, alongside the impressive adaptability that served them so well on Sunday.
Atalanta, as would be expected this season of all seasons, have fitness issues of their own – but their picture does look a little rosier.
Centre-back Mattia Caldara, wing-back Fabio Depaoli and Ukrainian midfielder Ruslan Malinovskyi are three who aren’t fit enough to be part of the squad for Wednesday. German left wing-back Robin Gosens and Dutch central midfielder Marten de Roon – two regular starters who were injured for the meeting earlier this month – should be fit enough to start.
As previously mentioned, Slovenian forward Josip Iličić – who was such a big part of the club’s success last term – featured for 84 minutes at the weekend and it seems likely the imposing left-footer will play at least some part this time on Wednesday evening.
Likely lineups and tactics
Liverpool (4-3-3):Embed from Getty Images
1. Alisson Becker; 76. Neco Williams, 32. Joël Matip, 3. Fabinho, 26. Andrew Robertson; 17. Curtis Jones, 5. Georginio Wijnaldum, 7. James Milner (C); 20. Diogo Jota, 9. Roberto Firmino, 10. Sadio Mane
The injury situation means Klopp’s options are somewhat limited, although personnel and shape could still be tweaked in several ways. The best bet is perhaps the side that played most of the second half against Leicester.
Curtis Jones’ maturity and discipline on Sunday was widely praised and this scenario would present another significant test of his and fellow Academy graduate Neco Williams’ defensive qualities down the Reds’ right.
Their manager is in the habit of backing his players, though, they could expect plenty of support from more experienced colleagues – chiefly Joël Matip and Georginio Wijnaldum – if the shape is as above.
James Milner and Rhys Williams could feature in the back four themselves, of course, which would potentially allow Fabinho to take up his more familiar defensive midfield berth or be rested for Brighton on Saturday.
Salah’s return, meanwhile, arguably enhances the possibility of Klopp utilising a ‘front-four’ with the kind of 4-2-3-1 seen at Manchester City earlier this month – although the manager may prefer to ease the 28-year-old back in as an impact substitute.
Either way, the hosts will be aiming to match the work rate and crispness that were the foundation of the win in Bergamo. Something which will give them all the more chance of maximising the pace of their forward line – especially if their opponents play with a similarly high line to last time.
Atalanta (3-4-3):Embed from Getty Images
57. Marco Sportiello; 2. Rafael Tolói, 17. Cristian Romero, 19. Berat Djimsiti; 33. Hans Hateboer, 15. Marten de Roon, 11. Remo Freuler, 8. Robin Gosens; 72. Josip Iličić, 10. Alejandro Gómez (C), 91. Duván Zapata
Gasperini’s men are no strangers to utilising the wide areas themselves.
In a recent piece for The Athletic, Michael Cox referenced how they effectively use “rotating diamonds,” across the pitch to create swift, free-flowing, vertical combinations. On the wings these diamonds tend to consist of one of the outside centre-backs, a central midfielder, a wing-back and one of the outside forwards.
For instance, if the shape is as above, the combination down their left would involve Berat Djimsiti, Remo Freuler, Gosens and Colombian forward Duván Zapata. As Cox explained in his piece, this process could see any one of those four end a move as the furthest forward of either the quartet – or the entire team.
That, inevitably, is difficult to track. With Gosens back in the side – meaning both first-choice wing-backs are set to start – these combinations may be more coherent than three weeks ago.
Last season’s third-placed Serie A side also implement a positively aggressive man-marking defensive system. A system somewhat similar to Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United – as Klopp mentioned in his press conference prior to the reverse game. As with Leeds, it takes considerable effort – and discipline – to overcome. Two traits that were indeed key to the Reds’ emphatic success in Bergamo.
That night, Atalanta’s 3-4-3 shape was generally in its more regular 3-4-1-2 variation, with captain Alejandro Gómez operating just behind – and in-between – Zapata and fellow Colombian striker Luis Muriel.
Gómez’s position will most likely be similar on Wednesday, but it will be interesting to see whether the shape morphs into more of a 3-4-2-1 – with him often furthest forward – in order to add a little extra solidity.
Muriel could very well fit into this plan, but it might be a system which accommodates another starting berth for Iličić. While he is a significant goal-threat himself, the 32-year-old is also highly creative – and may suit a slightly deeper role that bit more.
This should be a game full to brim. With intensity, with patterns and – primarily – with intrigue.
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