Can Liverpool be the surprise package in the Champions League?

Liverpool FC v 1899 Hoffenheim - UEFA Champions League Qualifying Play-Offs Round: Second Leg
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Ethan Golding analyses Liverpool’s chances of success in the Champions League this season.

Okay, so the weekend did not go according to plan. Saturday’s performance was at its best, face saving (barely) and at its worst, absolutely diabolical. A mess of poor decisions and quite simply pathetic individual performances.

Ultimately what is done is done. Klopp will no doubt have learned from his team’s performance, adjustments will be made and thoughts will have already turned to Wednesday’s big European clash with Sevilla.

And as such, it’s time for the Premier League hats to be neatly stored away and Champions League helmets should be fastened tightly because Liverpool could be this year’s UEFA Champions League surprise package.

Now I’m not for a second suggesting that Liverpool are the dark-horse in the race for Champions League glory. Getting out of the group stages would itself represent a good showing in Europe and an opportunity for a real old fashioned European Night at Anfield against a higher class of opponent.

Anything beyond the round of 16 would represent an excellent first insurgence into Europe for Klopp’s Liverpool side. But let’s think about the Liverpool side that Klopp has built and how they play football.

We are a side that struggles to break down deep block defensive systems, a system that is not employed by too many sides beyond the group stages. Liverpool’s group E matches against NK Maribor represent the most likely encounters with this system.

That being said it is often the lesser known teams, with no threat of damaging their reputation, that come out with all guns blazing looking to scalp a Big European club. Mixed metaphors aside, there’s no definitive way of knowing how Maribor will set up home or away.

But let’s say they do look to defend their way to a result, Liverpool will still be looking to come away from the two matches with a minimum of 4 points. The same can be said about FC Spartak Moscow, however, with the Russian Premier League side having been trying to establish themselves as a serious brand of football in Europe over the last decade, Moscow may be more likely to try and really attack us.

The result of such a mindset represents a great opportunity to grab an essential 6 points. With 10 points being the average total for a 2nd place finish in the group stages, Liverpool will be looking to secure a top spot by exacting revenge over Sevilla for the disappointment of the Europa League final of 2015/16 at least once.

Finishing top of Group E would afford Liverpool the opportunity to avoid drawing a top side in the round of 16, inviting the Reds to push for a European campaign that goes beyond the round of 16.

During Klopp’s time on Merseyside, Liverpool have shown that they are a team that revels in the opportunity to play top sides. Finishing last season undefeated against the top 6 sides of the Premier League (top 7 if you are inclined to sympathise with the Toffees) shows that Liverpool are not a side to underestimate when faced by stiff competition.

Jose Mourinho’s defensive minded United side of last year were the only team in the top 6 to avoid dropping 3 points to the Reds.

Don’t for a second believe that I’ve deluded myself into thinking we are a better side than we are. I’m not for a second saying that we should be looked at as anything other than underdogs should we draw Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.

But if Liverpool face a second tier top team like Atletico Madrid or, if their recent troubles continue, Barcelona, spectators should not be too surprised if Liverpool were to come out on top in a fixture of this ilk.

2016’s Europa League ties against Borussia Dortmund showed that, on a European Night at Anfield, not even teams well versed in the pressurised world of the Champions League are above capitulating when faced with the roar of the Kop.

A pre-international break 4-0 dispatching of Arsenal, an admittedly underwhelming Arsenal side, showed the attacking potency of Liverpool’s front three, in spite of a midfield that has recently been bemoaned as lacking creativity and being overly pragmatic.

Saturday’s defeat to Man City shows the frailties of Klopp’s system, a lacklustre performance not helped by the dismissal of Sadio Mané on 37 minutes.

Liverpool’s two midfield substitutions against Arsenal were James Milner and Marko Grujic, and while the two have many positive attributes, given the availability of Adam Lallana and presumably Philippe Coutinho, neither would make it onto the pitch.

The availability of Lallana and Coutinho against Man City would have seen a more reliable switch of tactics post Mané’s sending-off, as opposed to the hodgepodge of positional adjustments and defensive tactics.

The added depth afforded by Liverpool’s two most creative midfield players means a couple of European upsets should not be too surprising to Liverpool fans and equally supporters of other clubs.

The suggestion of a legitimate challenge for the Champions League is a little naive, but what is the point of being a football fan if we do not allow ourselves the occasional flight of fancy.

At the end of the day, Liverpool are back in the Champions League and we should all expect the unexpected and welcome the improbable.


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