Liverpool look to strengthen their chances of progressing to the knockout round of the Champions League for the second straight year as they host Red Star Belgrade at Anfield on Wednesday night in a Group D clash.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Reds are currently in second in the group, one point behind Napoli after splitting their first two group matches. Liverpool’s last Champions League contest earlier this month was arguably the worst match they played all season, a listless affair in Napoli that ended with a 1-0 defeat on a goal by Lorenzo Insigne in the 90th minute.
That loss was part of a brutal four-match gauntlet in which Liverpool played a pair of high-quality matches against Chelsea, getting dumped out of the Carabao Cup and salvaging a draw in league play, and a high-pressured scoreless draw at home versus reigning champions Manchester City.
The Merseysiders looked sluggish coming out of the international break, recording a 1-0 victory at Huddersfield Town on Saturday to stay level with City on points, albeit with an inferior goal difference, and central defender Virgil Van Dijk knows his side must improve to stay in the thick of things in Group D.
“We need to win every game. There is basically no other mindset,” the Dutch international told the club’s official website. “It’s another Champions League night at Anfield and I’m sure we will recover from Huddersfield and make sure we are ready.
“You are not going to dominate every game and play well every game but considering how we played it was a great result to keep a clean sheet. That’s all good but we could have done a bit better, perhaps made it easier for ourselves.”
Mohamed Salah accounted for the offence with a first-half goal, giving Liverpool supporters one less thing to worry about after ending a four-match scoreless drought with his first tally since Sept. 22. The Egypt international, though, is still a long ways off last season’s blistering pace in which he racked up 44 in all competitions. Salah has four goals thus far, all coming in league play.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will be re-jiggering his midfield for this match since he will be without talisman Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita through injuries. That has allowed Fabinho to make his long-awaited first start for the Reds in this game, as the £40 million summer signing from Monaco has been brought along slowly — he made his first Liverpool appearance in the final minutes of their win over PSG in their Champions League opener, then his first start in the Carabao Cup loss to Chelsea, and then his Premier League debut Saturday versus Huddersfield Town as a substitute.
“He has all the qualities; hard challenges, good offensively, good defensively, quick, good shooter, fantastic set-pieces, good header – all these things,” Klopp said of Fabinho while saying the Brasil international can follow the same path left back Andy Robertson took in becoming an integral part of Liverpool.
“Strategic too, he is good strategically in the right moment. But it’s been a different system. We just play different and that always needs time. He’s just a fantastic addition and can improve us from a specific moment on.”
While Fabinho replaces Keita in the left side of the midfield in Klopp’s 4-3-3, James Milner will occupy Henderson’s spot in the middle of the park. One other expected change to Klopp’s first-choice XI is the introduction of Xherdan Shaqiri at right wing as Sadio Mane has just returned to practice after suffering a broken thumb on international duty. Putting Shaqiri — who assisted on Salah’s goal versus Huddersfield — on his preferred right side has moved Salah to the middle, and Roberto Firmino is likely to be on the left wing.
Liverpool have shipped only eight goals in their 12 matches in all competitions this season, but three have come in their two Champions League contests. They are unbeaten in their last nine Champions League contests at Anfield (6-3-0) and 17 overall in European play (12-5-0) since a 3-0 loss to Real Madrid in 2014.
Red Star Belgrade are the perceived weak link in Group D with Paris-Saint Germain and Napoli the other clubs in the group, and while they are in last place with one point, much of the non-pleasing aesthetics can be attributed to their 6-1 hammering at the hands of PSG in their last match earlier this month.
That heavy defeat prompted an inquiry into allegations of match-fixing, with reports originating from France newspaper L’Equipe that a Red Star official placed an $8 million bet for his side to lose by five goals. The club angrily hit out at the accusations when they were announced, releasing a statement that read: “Scandalised and disgusted, Red Star Belgrade rejects suspicions concerning the PSG-Red Star game and the implication of anyone from the club in any untoward dealings.”
The club, which won the 1992 European Cup and is making its first Champions League group stage appearance since winning that title in Bari, has not addressed the matter any further in their trip to Anfield, but it has clearly hit a nerve throughout Serbia, with even President Aleksander Vucic weighing in on the situation.
“I think that the greatest part of what they are talking about is not true,” he told reporters according to the Straits Times. The Serbian leader vowed to “examine every possibility of whether anyone and in any way could have tarnished the name of our club and our country.”
On the pitch, Red Star have won four on the bounce since their drubbing by PSG and are coming off a 3-1 victory over Rad Beograd in their first home match of October on Saturday. Richmond Bokaye had a brace on either side of halftime around a marker by Marko Gobeljic. The Serbian side have a stranglehold on the Super Liga, dropping just two points from their first 12 matches and are seven points clear.
Bokaye has a team-high five goals for Red Star, but there is balance throughout the squad as 11 players have scored at least two goals. Gobeljic, Mohamed Ben El Fardou, and Milan Pavkov have all chipped in three goals.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are the heavy choice to get their Champions League progra back on track with three points as they are 1/16 favourites. Even a draw would be considered a substanial upset at 14/1 odds, while Red Star are 45/1 longshots to pull off the shock scoreline and claim three points.
Equally impressive is the oddsmakers’ confidence in Liverpool to regain their bearings offensively as they have 2/7 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored in the match. A 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline has 4/1 odds, while a 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline returns 16/1 odds. Putting down a fiver on Belgrade on any type of victory for laughs would see an incredible return — Red Star have 80/1 odds on a win with more than 2.5 goals and 100/1 odds for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. A draw of 2-2 or higher also has an impressive 45/1 listing.
Salah’s goal against Huddersfield Town over the weekend carried some favour with the oddsmakers, who made him the 21/10 favourite to open the scoring. Daniel Sturridge is at 3/1 odds, part of a staggering 13-deep lineup of Liverpool players who have better odds to give the hosts a 1-0 lead before finding Boakye on the toteboard at 20/1 for Belgrade, which puts him level with Van Dijk.
The any-time goal-scorers also feature a lengthy list of Liverpool players expected to score in this contest as six are listed better than even money: Salah (1/3), Sturridge (4/7), Firmino and Mane (4/5), and Divock Origi and Dominick Solanke (10/11). Shaqiri just misses out at 11/10, as does Adam Lallana (11/8). Boakye is again Red Star’s top option, this time at 9/2 to find the back of the net.
Klopp made an interesting analogy about the evolution of his side from high-powered offensive juggernaut to a more mature side that has sacrificed the glitz of an impressive scoreline on occasion to make sure they post a clean sheet.
“Last year our big strength was high pressing and when there were moments when they didn’t play football, it was like ‘sorry’,” said Klopp. “It’s like a dog – if you don’t give him his favourite toy and you throw something else he thinks: ‘No, I don’t want that, I want the other one.'”
Nowhere was that evolution more apparent than in their scoreless draw at home versus Manchester City. Yes, Liverpool were lef off the hook when Riyad Mahrez sent an 86th-minute penalty into orbit that could have also landed at Everton’s Goodison Park, but the Reds have taken multiple steps forward in shutting down opponents as opposed to simply outscoring them. There is a Plan B for the Reds when the gegenpress doesn’t create the desired results, and that continues to be the biggest takeaway from last summer’s loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
That and a much higher calibre keeper between the sticks in Alisson.
It may take some time for Liverpool to work through their gears in this contest with the new-look midfield pairing of Milner and Fabinho. Despite his limited minutes, his lone start came in the Carabao Cup match versus Chelsea, which was a contest played with a high degree of intensity considering it was an early round matchup in England’s third-tier cup tournament.
Also if interest is Salah playing through the middle. It got a dry run versus Huddersfield and was successful to a degree — after all, it was Shaqiri who sent Salah through for his goal. But this also has the look of a formation that can shift to a 4-4-2 given the Swiss star’s like of cutting in from the wing on the right. Firmino and Salah usually play narrow when Mane is on the pitch with them; Shaqiri’s preference to be on the wing will give both strikers the space to operate, but they must also find a balance in spacing when Shaqiri does go forward.
With all due respect to Red Star, this is a far cry from the 1973 squad that came to Liverpool and eliminated them from the European Cup with 2-1 victories in both legs. Their quality of play in those matches so exquisite that supporters in the Kop end applauded the visitors as they left the pitch. It was those chastening defeats that led to the resignation of Bill Shankly and an organisational re-boot for Liverpool that has led to the current ethos of the club, which includes playing the ball out of the back in central defence as opposed to those players simply shutting down the opponent.
There may be some flashes of that for Red Star, but they will likely see it thrown back at them more times than not through Liverpool’s spine of Alisson, Van Dijk and either Joe Gomez or Dejan Lovren depending on who Klopp opts to partner with his imposing Dutchman.
This should be a straightforward win for Liverpool, who likely will look to push the attack to make up some of the goal difference they currently have compared to PSG.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LIVERPOOL 4, Red Star Belgrade 0.
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Shakhtar Donetsk (0-2-0) vs. Manchester City (1-0-1)
PSV Eindhoven (0-0-2) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (0-0-2)