Friday 23 August 2019

John Aldridge: The key for Liverpool's Champions League chances will be the number next to Roma's name after tonight

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

John Aldridge

Liverpool were given a timely wake-up call in their 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday – and I was delighted to see the anger flowing from manager Jurgen Klopp and his players after the game.

With a top four finish in the Premier League looking all-but assured heading into the final month of the season, Saturday’s game at the Hawthorns was of secondary importance to Klopp and his players ahead of tonight’s Champions League semi-final against Roma.

Yet you could sense the fury in Klopp as his team surrendered a 2-0 lead, with the manner of the goals conceded a blast from the not-so-distant past for Liverpool’s defensive line.

Virgil van Dijk’s signing in January has changed a few aspects of Liverpool’s defending, with the key for me being the presence of a true leader in that back line.

Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have emerged as big plusses in the full-back positions and Dejan Lovren has shown huge signs of improvement with the big man Van Dijk refuelling his confidence.

Yet what we saw on Saturday was a reminder that Klopp and his players have to guard against slipping back into their old, fragile ways if they want to realise the dream of going all the way in the Champions League.

Joe Gomez and Alberto Moreno did not make the most of their opportunities as they turned in shaky displays against West Brom and the two goals conceded were a snapshot of Liverpool’s problems in 2017. They dealt badly with crosses into the box, lost their men at key moments and didn’t defend with the calm composure we have got used to seeing since Van Dijk arrived.

Klopp was seething in his post-match press conference and while he moaned about a dry pitch at the Hawthorns, I bet he was equally annoyed about his team’s dreadful defending.

Meanwhile, Van Dijk came out in his post-match interview and revealed there was a dressing room debrief with plenty of raised voices after the game.

That is good to hear. You don’t want players to accept the kind of defending we witnessed on Saturday, with the first goal coming from a botched attempt to clear a ball into the box and the late equaliser arriving after Lovren lost his man on another cross.

It confirmed that the weakness in Liverpool’s defensive line can still rise to the surface if focus is lost for a second and Roma will have seen those goals at the weekend and taken encouragement from them.

Liverpool’s defence should be far more stable with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold back in the line-up tonight and they will need to be, with Roma striker Edin Dzeko a real handful if he is given the chance to do what he does best.

He was a six out of ten performer in his days at Manchester City, but Dzeko has looked a real threat in the Champions League this season and was too much for Barcelona to handle in the quarter-finals.

Dzeko is far from being Roma’s only threat as in Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman, they have players who have experience in abundance who will fancy their chances of winning the midfield battle.

What the Italians lack is the fear factor Liverpool boast with newly-crowned PFA Player of the Year, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino forming a front three that has blown away most opponents this season.

The key for me tonight is the number next to Roma’s name at the end of the game and if it is a zero, I would expect Liverpool to be in a very strong position heading into the second leg in Rome next week.

Playing at home first is a disadvantage to an extent, but Liverpool showed how you can turn it in your favour by thrashing Manchester City 3-0 at Anfield in the last round and they will be aiming for something similar tonight. We know what to expect at Anfield, as these European nights just get better and better with each passing year, as another layer of history if placed on top of the great occasions that are part of Liverpool FC’s fabric. I’m expecting a Liverpool win tonight, but anyone who suggests they have got an easy route to the final after drawing Roma are talking nonsense.

This tie will be tense, tight and is certain to have a few twists along the way, with both teams appreciating they have a real chance to get through to a Champions League final.

I don’t care how Liverpool get over the line so long as they are in the final in Kiev next month by the time the final whistle blow in Rome next Wednesday.

Come on you Reds!

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