Wednesday 16 January 2019

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp faces defensive dilemma before ‘fire’ of Manchester City Champions League tie

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp celebrates with Trent Alexander-Arnold
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp celebrates with Trent Alexander-Arnold

Lawrence Ostlere

Liverpool had already been warned before they gave away the penalty at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

They were warned three minutes earlier, when Wilfried Zaha zoomed in behind and nearly scored; they were warned three weeks earlier too, when Marcus Rashford sliced along the same diagonal at Old Trafford. So when Zaha made an untracked run and drew the penalty, chasing after a simple Christian Benteke header, it had been coming.

Afterwards Jurgen Klopp was reluctant to criticise his defenders, dismissing the obvious comparison with Rashford's goal. "Yes, the goal and the penalty and the situation before we can defend better, even when it's very difficult," Klopp said. "Benteke or Lukaku in these situations are really good, and yes we have spoken about positioning, but it was a different position here [compared to] Manchester United."

Palace's penalty didn't matter in the end – strikes by Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah turned the match around – but these are potentially defining days, with the first edition of a juicy Champions League quarter-final against Manchester City on Wednesday, before the Merseyside derby and the second leg all within a week. It is a bad time for Zaha to expose the fallibility in Liverpool's right side.

The young right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold struggled, though really he was a victim of what makes Klopp's teams so compelling to watch, a full-back stationed so high up the pitch that his defensive duties always begin with a scramble back home like a man who's left the gas on. Then there was Joel Matip; twice in the first half he sent passes aimlessly off the pitch before flailing his arms accusingly at no one in particular. One or both could lose their place against City.

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Klopp's defensive dilemma is heightened by the fact that in Leroy Sane Liverpool face one of the most dangerous wingers in Europe, a player of undetectable movement, prowling off grid, barely registering a blip before beginning each stealth assault.

Pep Guardiola loves to stretch his opposition and that is when Liverpool are most susceptible, as the individual components of Klopp's supercharged machine become exposed. Klopp must decide whether to stick with the 19-year-old Alexander-Arnold, throw in the unsharp Nethaniel Clyne or perhaps turn to the ever-reliable James Milner, and he must choose whether to partner Joel Matip or Dejan Lovren with Virgil van Dijk. These decisions are crucial; it is a team game, but against Guardiola the game tends to be won and lost in isolated duels.

"We should finish the game with 11 first of all, that would be cool," said Klopp of his plans for City. "We know it's difficult. Did we think before the first [league game against City in September] we would lose 5-0? No. Did we think before the second [in January] we would win 4-3? No. Do we know we have a chance? Yes. But they are the favourites.

"At specific moments I think we are on a similar level but they have been much more consistent and that's why they are about 20 points higher in the league. I have no problem with respecting that. But we all know that in this game, it doesn't mean too much. We see our chance but we know it will be unbelievably difficult."

Just like those two league encounters, Wednesday's meeting at Anfield promises plenty of goals, and how Klopp sets up his team will go some way to deciding who scores them. It promises to be a special spectacle, above all, because these two managers only know one way to play. "If I would have had the choice to watch a Champions League game on Wednesday, I would watch this one," added Klopp. "It is about tactics, but there will be fire in the game. So that's cool."

Independent News Service

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