Liverpool are in a luxurious position going into their match with Porto. The Reds are, barring an epic capitulation, through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League following their 5-0 victory in the Estádio do Dragão on Valentine’s Day.
There have been some memorable comebacks throughout Champions League knockout history, but if Porto manage to turn things around on Tuesday evening it will be a record-breaking night.
Barcelona famously overturned a 4-0 deficit last season when they knocked Paris Saint-Germain out of the Champions League. Deportivo La Coruña dispatched AC Milan in 2003/04 despite going into the second leg 4-1 down. However, in both instances, the team with ground to make up played the return leg in front of a home crowd.
On a European night, Anfield is a special place. The Portuguese leaders are having to make the trip to Merseyside and not just get a result; to progress, they need to score at least five away goals and shut out Liverpool’s rampant forward line.
For context, since the 3-2 defeat to West Bromwich Albion in January, the Reds have won five of their last six matches in all competitions. Jürgen Klopp’s men have scored 18 goals in those games and conceded just three.
It’s rare that teams get a free pass at this stage of the season, but Liverpool, essentially, have that. However, they can still make this tie worthwhile without damaging their momentum going into the match against Manchester United this weekend.
Klopp’s stuck between a rock and a hard place in many ways. If he picks a strong team and, for example, Virgil van Dijk picks up an injury which rules him out for the rest of the season, then people will put it down as a mistake by the manager.
Likewise, if he picks a weakened team and Liverpool crumble, then Klopp’s disrupted their rhythm by not fielding his strongest XI and people will question whether it was the correct decision. And it’s true, you can see both sides of the argument. It is difficult to strike a balance but it’s necessary.
The game against Porto is an ideal opportunity for certain areas of the team to strengthen their relationship and understanding. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino can be all be rested, but Loris Karius, van Dijk and whichever centre-back Klopp feels is in his first-choice defence should all start and this game should be used as a more-competitive training match.
Experience for those without it
Teams are often reluctant to field inexperienced players in knockout football unless it’s a necessity. The Reds, though, can field a number of players lacking Champions League experience thanks to the position they are in.
Though Adam Lallana turns 30 years old at the end of the season, the former Southampton playmaker has just 222 minutes of action in Europe’s elite competition.
He’s yet to feature in the Champions League this season because of injuries and a run-out against Porto will help his match fitness as well as his experience in these sorts of games. Furthermore, it gives Klopp the opportunity to play him as part of the midfield three again after impressing there last season.
Dominic Solanke has caught the eye a number of times this season but is yet to break his duck for the Reds. He’s not started as often as he would’ve liked and, throughout his fledgling career, has just 31 minutes in the Champions League.
With the emphasis on Porto to attack at Anfield, Liverpool will be dangerous on the break and the former Chelsea youngster could well bag his first goal for the club. The boost could do him wonders heading into the business end of the campaign.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is another who could do with a run-out on Tuesday evening. He’s not lacking experience when it comes to Champions League football but he’s yet to play in a winning team. Arsenal always used to cave during the first knockout stage, so giving the versatile midfielder a different feeling in this competition will be beneficial to him as a player.
Staking claims for a place in the starting XI
“It’s really hard in the moment to make the squad,” Klopp, who became the first Liverpool manager to register five five-goals-plus away wins, told LFCTV.
“Wow, I’ve never had a situation like that with the quality of the players not being in the squad.”
While the squad may not be as good as fans might have hoped after pocketing £106million following the sale of Philippe Coutinho, it’s one of the best the club has managed to assemble since the inception of the Premier League.
A good performance against Porto may give certain players an opportunity get into Klopp’s starting XI. Aside from van Dijk, Karius and the front three, not many others are guaranteed a start, so places are up for grabs.
Lallana has the opportunity to prove he can be the creator in midfield. Oxlade-Chamberlain can displace Georginio Wijnaldum as the link player in the middle third, and Alberto Moreno has the chance to put in a performance to rival Andrew Robertson.