PREVIEW | Liverpool v Ajax: Reds again target Champions League last 16 as they welcome in-form Eredivisie leaders

JAMES NOBLE looks ahead to what we can expect to see in Tuesday evenings European encounter against Ajax at Anfield.

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After Wednesday’s 2-0 home defeat to Atalanta allowed the Italians and Ajax to get within two points of the Reds, Jürgen Klopp’s men have another chance to qualify from Group D on Tuesday night, when Erik ten Hag’s free-scoring side – who will overtake their hosts with a win – visit Anfield.

Context

Last Wednesday’s 2-0 home defeat to Atalanta, alongside Ajax’s 3-1 win over Midtjylland in Amsterdam, saw both the Italian and Dutch club climb onto seven points – while the Merseysiders stayed on nine. 

The three victories Klopp’s men opened their continental campaign with mean their destiny is still firmly in their own hands. One win from their remaining two group games will see them through but, needless to say, the race to qualify is now that bit tighter. 


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Ten Hag’s team have every reason to head to Anfield with confidence. They’ve won seven and drawn one of their eight games in all competitions since the Reds’ narrow 1-0 victory over them on October 20 – scoring 38 and conceding just six in the process. 

They’ll be a big test for a Liverpool team looking to hit their stride once more after a rough patch of results. These clubs have ten European Cups between them but are still seen as two of the most notable exponents of modern football. Elements which simply make Tuesday’s meeting an additionally enticing prospect.

Team news

The injury list remains a long one at Anfield. James Milner is the latest addition after he went off with a hamstring issue during the 1-1 draw at Brighton on Saturday. Skipper Jordan Henderson returned on Saturday, playing the second half on the south coast, which is major boost to Klopp. 

The Liverpool boss did appear quietly optimistic about the condition of Naby Keïta (hamstring), Xherdan Shaqiri (unspecified muscle) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (calf) when asked about their respective recoveries in his Monday pre-match press conference. 

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“They are all getting closer, but not close enough for tomorrow, I think. With Naby, we have to check still but, with the other two, they will not be ready,” said the German. 

“Trent looks quite good but nobody gave me the green light for [training] tonight so he will not be in. He didn’t train with the team, stuff like this. I saw him today on the pitch doing his rehab stuff outside so that looks, already, good but it’s not my decision,” he continued. 

“I cannot decide when this rehab stuff will be finished. I take the players over in the moment when I get the green light. That didn’t happen yet but, from my rather experienced eye, what I saw today, it will not be that long anymore with Trent.” 

Indeed, none of the aforementioned triumvirate were part of the squad’s session later that afternoon, but the noises for the not-too-distant future sounded relatively promising. 

Klopp also provided some welcome clarification on Thiago Alcântara’s situation. 

The Spanish midfielder is yet to return to full training since being on the wrong end of Richarlison’s heavy challenge in Merseyside derby on October 17, and the manager explained that: “Nothing was broken, nothing was ruptured… but the impact on the knee, on the leg was that big, it’s still not okay.” 

On when he can be expected back, Klopp said: “I can’t say exactly when he will be fine but it will take a few weeks still, with Thiago, and that’s how it is.”

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Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain appears to be edging closer to a return – with pictures on November 20 showing that his rehabilitation had progressed to the grass – but Klopp hinted after the Brighton game that it was unlikely he would be ready for either Ajax, or Wolves on Sunday. 

Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, meanwhile, are continuing their rehab from their respective knee injuries and Nat Phillips is another centre-back who will be unavailable, due to the 23-year-old not being in the Reds’ Champions League squad. 

Ajax have injury concerns too, but a significantly shorter list of them. Daley Blind went off with a hamstring problem against Midtjylland last week, while right-back Noussair Mazraoui and 18-year-old midfielder Ryan Gravenberch were forced off with minor issues of their own in the impressive 5-0 Eredivisie victory at FC Emmen at the weekend. 

All three however have been included in their 21-man travelling squad, whilst Ten Hag appeared relatively optimistic about the shape his players were in during his own pre-match press conference. 

Young attacker Mohammed Kudus remains out, meanwhile, after the knee injury he sustained in October’s reverse fixture required surgery.

Likely lineups and tactics

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Liverpool (4-2-3-1):

1. Alisson Becker; 76. Neco Williams, 32. Joël Matip, 3. Fabinho, 26. Andrew Robertson; 14. Jordan Henderson (C), 5. Georginio Wijnaldum; 20. Diogo Jota, 9. Roberto Firmino, 10. Sadio Mane; 11. Mohamed Salah

Substitutes:

13. Adrián (GK), 17. Curtis Jones, 18. Takumi Minamino, 21. Konstantinos Tsimikas, 27. Divock Origi, 46. Rhys Williams, 62. Caoimhin Kelleher (GK), 64. Jake Cain, 65. Leighton Clarkson, 89. Billy Koumetio

As has become a recent theme, of sorts, Klopp has relatively little wriggle room when it comes to lineups. 

With Phillips ineligible, Rhys Williams could return to the back-four, although Klopp may opt for the more experienced partnership of Joël Matip and Fabinho. Neco Williams had a relatively chastening outing on Saturday, but having three experienced faces alongside him could offer some additional guidance – especially if Ajax opt to target his side with their familiar wide overloads. 

4-2-3-1 could again allow fewer midfield regulars to exert themselves. Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum are a relatively familiar double-pivot partnership, while the shape would also enable all of Diogo Jota, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah to start. 

4-3-3 also have its advantages, of course. Curtis Jones could come into midfield and one of the prospective front-four could be used as an impact sub, for instance. Alternatively, a Rhys Williams’ start might mean Fabinho would be able to sit between two of Wijnaldum, Henderson and Jones in midfield. 

Either way, the Reds will want to be in a position to be considerably more front-foot than they were against Atalanta last week.

Ajax (4-2-3-1):

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24. André Onana; 12. Noussair Mazraoui, 3. Perr Schuurs, 21. Lisandro Martínez, 31. Nicolás Tagliafico; 6. Davy Klaassen, 8. Ryan Gravenberch; 7. David Neres, 10. Dušan Tadić (C), 39. Antony Santos; 23. Lassina Traoré

Substitutes:

1. Maarten Stekelenburg (GK), 2. Jurriën Timber, 4. Edson Álvarez, 5. Sean Klaiber, 9. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, 11. Quincy Promes, 16. Kjell Scherpen (GK), 17. Daley Blind, 18. Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, 19. Zakaria Labyad

24. André Onana; 12. Noussair Mazraoui, 3. Perr Schuurs, 21. Lisandro Martínez, 31. Nicolás Tagliafico; 6. Davy Klaassen, 8. Ryan Gravenberch; 7. David Neres, 10. Dušan Tadić (C), 39. Antony Santos; 23. Lassina Traoré 

Substitutes: 

1. Maarten Stekelenburg (GK), 2. Jurriën Timber, 4. Edson Álvarez, 5. Sean Klaiber, 9. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, 11. Quincy Promes, 16. Kjell Scherpen (GK), 17. Daley Blind, 18. Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, 19. Zakaria Labyad 

There should be plenty of energy – and belief – flowing through the Dutch side. Their team houses a healthy mix of youth and experience and they remain capable of combining deft technical brilliance with periods of immense collective intensity. 

Their wingers will often wander from side to side in order to create overloads and, like Liverpool, they appear capable of functioning impressively in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. They seem to have used the latter more in recent times, with the likes of Zakaria Labyad and Dušan Tadić capable operating in and around 19-year-old striker Lassina Traoré. 

As well as on the wing, Tadić is capable of playing as either the ‘10’ or striker. Such a move may see Ten Hag play David Neres and Antony Santos in the wide positions – as he did away against Atalanta – which could provide additional speed on counter-attacks and transitions. 

Whether the likes of Blind and Gravenberch are ready to play could prove a significant factor in their choice of approach. The former could conceivably come in for Lisandro Martínez at centre-back or operate in a single or double midfield pivot. 

As with many of the games in this group, this looks set to be an intense one – but it should certainly have its fair share of intricacies.


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