Liverpool have the opportunity to put themselves in prime position to advance from Group C of the Champions League on Tuesday if they can complete a home-and-home sweep of last-place Red Star Belgrade.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Liverpool are atop the group on six points through three matches and also have the joint-best goal difference with PSG at plus-4. The Reds are one point better than Napoli and two better than the French side after the first set of three matches and walloped Red Star 4-0 at Anfield. Jurgen Klopp’s team put 12 of their 22 shots on goal and limited Red Star to two shots for the match.
Domestically, however, Liverpool are coming off a 1-1 draw at Arsenal that dropped them two points back of front-running Manchester City. The Reds were unlucky to have a goal chalked off incorrectly for offsides, but James Milner gave them a chance for all three points by lashing a shot past Bernd Leno just after the hour, but Arsenal gained a split of the points eight minutes from time through Alexander Lacazette.
The biggest surprise among the players named for this match making the trip is the omission of in-form winger Xherdan Shaqiri. The Switzerland international and native of Kosovo caused a stir during the Swiss’ World Cup match against Serbia when he celebrated his goal by making a double eagle gesture, which is the national symbol for Kosovo.
Klopp opted to remove all potential for a distraction with Shaqiri’s presence, which would have undoubtedly riled what will likely be a very lively and partisan Rajko Mitic Stadium.
“We have heard and read the speculation and talk about what kind of reception Shaq would receive and although we have no idea what would happen, we want to go there and be focused 100 per cent on football and not have to think about anything else, that’s all,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website.
“We are keen to be respectful and keen to avoid any distractions that would take focus away from a 90-minute-plus contest that is important for football and only football. So for that reason, Shaq is not involved and he accepts and understands this. Shaq is our player, we love him, and he will play for us a lot of times, but not on Tuesday.”
Two players who will return are centre back Dejan Lovren and midfielder Naby Keita. Keita has missed Liverpool’s last four matches with a hamstring injury while Lovren did not make the 18-man roster for the Arsenal match as Klopp opted to pair Virgil Van Dijk with Joe Gomez in central defence.
Liverpool, though, will again be without talisman and midfielder Jordan Henderson as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury as well.
While Red Star may be at the bottom of the group and suffering defensively after shipping 10 goals in the last two matches, their home form implies this will be a difficult task for Liverpool in prying all three points from the Serbian side. Red Star, who opened group play with a 0-0 draw versus Napoli, are unbeaten in their last 28 (23-5-0) at Rajko Mitic since a loss to Arsenal more than a year ago in Europa League group play.
“I said it after the first game, I saw it in that game – we were really good that night and if we would have been a little bit less good then immediately Red Star would have been in the game,” Klopp said. But, that night, we were really strong and that was good. We have to be very strong tomorrow again, football-wise.
“Atmosphere… we are from Liverpool so we know how big the influence can be. The only way I know to cool the atmosphere down is playing really good football. That’s what we have to try; to be ready for a fight and ready for a big game.
Domestically, Red Star have been imperious with just two dropped points from 15 matches and have won three on the trot since the loss at Anfield. They are coming off a 2-0 road victory over Novi Sad on Saturday. The hosts gifted Red Star a lead on nine minutes through an own goal by Aleksandar Andrejevic before Ben El Fardou Nabouhane put the game out of reach just before the hour.
While shipping just four goals at home this season, Red Star have posted just one clean sheet there in their last five league contests. Milan Pavkov and Richmond Boakeye share the team lead in league play with five goals. Nabouhane’s goal was his fourth in the Super Liga and team-best 10th in all competitions.
Though Red Star are decided underdogs for this match, manager Vladan Milojevic is hoping the side, with the support of the home crowd, can turn back the clock to their glory days of yesteryear to pull off a shock scoreline and muddle a group where no one has broken away.
“For the club, Belgrade, Serbia and the whole region tomorrow is an important occasion, and we are looking forward to a spectacle. We will try to make the best of the game,” Milojevic told a press conference.
“Liverpool are a favourite, no matter what. They are one of the main contenders to win the Champions League; the team is made to attack for the title. We need to be concentrated all the time, because every pause and the smallest little thing is immediately punished.”
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are decisive favourites to claim a sweep of this home-and-home set, installed at 2/11 odds to claim all three points. Red Star are 16/1 longshots to pull off the shock verdict, and even a draw seems far-fetched with 11/2 odds.
Liverpool are again expected to put up goals, getting 4/6 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals in the match. The Reds also have 27/10 odds for a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline to bring back to England. There are 7/1 odds on a draw with less than 2.5 goals, and a 2-2 draw has better odds (22/1) than a Red Star victory with more than 2.5 goals (28/1) and less than the 2.5 threshold (33/1).
Despite being on the road, Liverpool have the first nine options on the toteboard for first-goal selections. Mohamed Salah leads the way at 13/5, while Sadio Mane and Daniel Sturridge — who could get the start over Firmino — are 7/2. Speaking of Firmino, he and Divock Origi are paired together at 4/1, followed by a parade of Liverpool midfielders — Adam Lallana, Keita, Georginio Wijnaldum and Milner — all between 15/2 and 12/1. Boakye and Pavkov are Red Star’s top picks at 14/1, while Ben Nabouhane is third at 16/1.
Salah is better than even money to put one in the back of the net at 7/10, while Sturridge is even money. Firmino (6/5) and Origi (5/4) are just off that pace, with Milner an intriguing pick at 7/2 as Liverpool’s usual penalty taker. Boakye (7/2) is rated slightly higher than Ben Nabouhane and Pavkov, who are both 4/1 on getting one by Alisson.
While Liverpool get a break at the weekend with a Fulham side in horrid form, this is a contest that could prove tricky. The Reds are nearing the end of an exhausting stretch of matches that included two high-intensity league contests versus City and Arsenal around the first win over Red Star.
The decision to leave Shaqiri behind, in theory, should not make that much of a difference given the depth in attack Klopp has, but lineup selection could make this too clever by half. There has been talk of Firmino being dropped for Sturridge — the Brasil international has one goal in his last nine matches (though he nearly had one against Arsenal) — and could be in need of a break. Liverpool have looked slightly fatigued, and the international break is coming at an ideal time.
Red Star will likely come out aggressive in the first half-hour, but the challenge will come after that to maintain that energy the final hour. The Serbian side are obviously a different one at home than on the road, but the gulf in class was clearly evident in both the reverse fixture and at PSG where they shipped six. Expect more resiliency from Red Star, but ultimately, the same victor.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Red Star 0, Liverpool 2.