Liverpool ready to walk the Champions League tightrope again

Liverpool have been here before.

For the third year in a row, their Champions League campaign is in jeopardy early on. For the third year in a row, the Reds need a result from their final group match in order to avoid elimination.

They’re all big games these days, of course, but Tuesday night certainly falls into that category. The European champions travel to Austria knowing a defeat to Jesse Marsch’s vibrant, free-scoring Red Bull Salzburg outfit would – providing Napoli don’t lose at home to Genk – end their trophy defence almost before it starts.

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Another high-wire act, then, for a team which seems to specialise in them. The easy route is rarely Liverpool’s preferred one. Drama is their European currency.

A year ago they needed to beat Napoli, either 1-0 or by two clear goals, in order to progress to the last 16. They managed the former, but only courtesy of a brilliant stoppage-time save from Alisson Becker. Whenever the story of European Cup number six is told, the Brazilian’s heroics in December should be given as much prominence as Divock Origi’s goals, Mo Salah’s penalty or Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner.

In 2017 the passage was, in the end, a little safer. Liverpool went into their final group match, at home to Spartak Moscow, knowing only a defeat would send them out. They won 7-0, with Philippe Coutinho scoring a hat-trick, and eventually went all the way to the final, where they were beaten by Real Madrid.

Jurgen Klopp’s team are used to playing, and delivering, under pressure. “I’m four years in,” the German remarked after the 1-1 draw with Napoli last month, “Tell me when it was easy?”

He has a point. Liverpool’s pursuit of honours, both domestic and worldwide, means that each fixture carries real significance. They’re competing for points and prizes, and that requires intensity and concentration, as well as footballing ability. No wonder Klopp calls them “mentality giants.”

To answer his question, though, the last time Liverpool ‘had it easy’, perhaps, was in May 2016 when they travelled to West Brom for a dead rubber Premier League fixture. 

It was the final game of the season, and it came just three days before the Europa League final with Sevilla in Basel. The Reds drew 1-1 at the Hawthorns. Jordon Ibe scored, Cameron Brannagan, Brad Smith and Sergi Canos played and they finished the season eighth in the table – just below West Ham.

It speaks volumes about what Klopp has created since that Liverpool, genuinely, have not played a single game since which didn’t have something significant at stake. Even the domestic cups, which can often feel like an irritant, matter. Liverpool have played Everton, Arsenal, Chelsea and Wolves in the past two seasons, and will face Everton again in January. They rarely get the easy draw.

They arrive in Austria on a roll, eight points clear at the top of the Premier League and having won 35 of their last 40 matches in all competitions. They need fear nobody.

But Salzburg showed enough at Anfield in October to ensure that complacency is not even considered. Liverpool led 3-0 inside 36 minutes that night but were given an almighty scare thereafter. Marsch’s half-time team talk, captured on camera, accused his players of giving their opponents too much respect, and they responded brilliantly. 

Led by the brilliant Takumi Minamino, Salzburg levelled by the hour mark and it took a swift regroup, and a Salah winner, to get the Reds out of jail.

So they’ve had their warning, and they can expect the home side to be backed by a fervent crowd at the Red Bull Arena. Marsch’s side know a win will not only stun Europe, but secure their own place in the knockout stages for the first time. They’ll be motivated alright.

They will also have Europe’s most in-form striker in Erling Braut Haaland, the 19-year-old who has scored 24 times already this season, including in each of his five Champions League outings.

Haaland started on the bench at Anfield, emerging to net Salzburg’s equaliser within four minutes of his arrival, but he will not be left out this time. He is widely tipped to move on to one of Europe’s top leagues in January, with Manchester United among the many clubs keen. How he would love to leave a parting gift.

As for Liverpool, the hope is that the fluency seen in victories against Everton and Bournemouth in the past week will be there once more. Dejan Lovren should be fit, and we can expect Sadio Mane and Gini Wijnaldum to be recalled after being rested at the weekend. 

If Liverpool need a reminder of what’s at stake, they need only browse the betting odds for this year’s Europa League. Some bookmakers have the Reds as favourites – a chastening thought. Klopp and his team have eyes on Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester City, not Malmo, Cluj and Braga. 

“Ready for a BIG game in Salzburg!” tweeted the club’s official account on Monday. They can say that again. 

It wasn’t supposed to be, but Tuesday could be huge for Liverpool’s season.

They’re ready to walk the Champions League tightrope again.

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