UCL offers Klopp & Liverpool a form of redemption
The Reds’ Premier League title defence has completely collapsed but they could yet salvage their season by seeing off Leipzig in Budapest
Just when the Reds thought their season had reached rock bottom, they went and found yet another trap door to fall through.
Defeat to relegation-threatened Fulham on Sunday represents a new low for Jurgen Klopp and his beleaguered troops, who have now lost their last six games in a row at Anfield, and taken just 12 of the last 42 Premier League points on offer.
Top of the table at Christmas, Liverpool find themselves in the middle of it by March. Their title defence was over by the end of January, and even the idea of a top-four finish looks fanciful now.
At this rate, they’ll do well to make the top 10. The question now, if we even dare ask, is just how bad can things get?
There is an assumption that it simply has to improve, that the quality of the players and the manager will eventually tell, that things will click and the luck will turn.
Klopp hinted on Sunday that the Champions League may provide some much-needed solace, during this time of crisis.
Liverpool resume their European campaign on Wednesday night with the second leg of their last-16 tie against RB Leipzig, a ‘home’ game which, like the first leg three weeks ago, will be played in Budapest.
Given the Reds’ Anfield struggles of late – they have failed to win their last eight games there, and scored just one penalty across their last seven – that is not the negative it would usually be.
Klopp’s side arrive carrying a 2-0 advantage from the first leg, and are naturally strong favourites to clinch their place in the quarter-finals. And what a much-needed boost that would be.
And yet it would be dangerous to assume progression is a given. Liverpool’s form is too poor, their resources too stretched, their confidence too brittle.
They are not scoring goals, their midfield is loose and the centre of their defence, whoever plays, is inexperienced at this level.
Leipzig may have been underwhelming in the first leg, their sloppiness deservedly punished by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, but Julian Nagelsmann knows his side are still very much in the tie.
Score first, as plenty of sides have against Liverpool of late, and the Reds’ already-fragile belief will be pushed to a new extreme.
The Germans have been playing well themselves. Either side of that defeat in Hungary, they have won their last eight domestic matches, including an emphatic 3-0 victory away at Freiburg at the weekend.
Even in the first leg, they caused Liverpool plenty of problems, and had it not been for Alisson Becker, the width of a post and some wasteful finishing, the tie could easily be a lot closer.
Klopp, of course, would argue that he deserves a bit of good fortune at the moment, and in fairness his team had chances of their own to ensure their advantage was even greater.
Liverpool have lost their captain, Jordan Henderson, to injury since the first leg, but will be boosted by the availability of Fabinho, who made his own return last week.
The Brazilian started at centre-back in the loss to Chelsea last Thursday, but came on as a substitute in midfield as the Reds chased the game against Fulham on Sunday.
Most would like to see that continue, but Klopp was giving little away at his pre-match press conference yesterday. “I know [what I will do], but I won’t say,” he smiled.
Ozan Kabak could return after missing the Fulham game with a groin issue of his own, and Klopp could hand a European debut to Nat Phillips, in what would represent another remarkable step forward for the 23-year-old.
Phillips was not even registered for the group stages, as Liverpool had expected him to leave the club before the end of the summer transfer window. Instead, he has been pressed into action and, in fairness, has let nobody down during his nine league appearances so far.
In attack, Mane should return to the starting XI at the expense of Xherdan Shaqiri, though Roberto Firmino will miss out due to a knee issue.
The Brazilian’s form prior to that had been the source of much debate, with just six goals in 37 appearances so far this term. Whatever other attributes he brings, his scoring record remains a source of genuine concern.
The return of Diogo Jota, then, is well-timed. The Portugal international completed 90 minutes on Sunday, and his dynamism and speed on the counterattack could be crucial against a side as open as Leipzig.
We saw earlier in the season, especially away at Atalanta, how effective he can be when given space and service. He has three more goals than Firmino this season and only two fewer than Mane, despite missing the best part of three months through injury.
It seems absurd to suggest Liverpool should head into Wednesday’s game nervous. They have the box-seat, and their two ‘away’ goals look priceless. Score first at ‘home’, and that should be that.
“We are in this game long enough to know we are not qualified yet,” Klopp said on Tuesday. “Leipzig are good, there is nothing else to say about them. They have a great team and a great manager.”
It’s time for Liverpool to remind the world that the same is true of themselves. It’s time for Klopp and his players to prove that form is temporary but class is permanent.
Fail in Budapest, and they really will have hit rock bottom.