Liverpool can potentially clinch a spot in the knockout round of the Champions League for a second successive season if they can complete the double over Paris-St. Germain on Wednesday at Parc des Princes and get a little bit of help.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Jurgen Klopp’s side opened group play with a thrilling 3-2 victory at Anfield over the Ligue 1 leaders in September as Roberto Firmino’s goal in stoppage time the winner after PSG nearly escaped with a point after Kylian Mbappe’s equaliser on 83 minutes.
Yet therein, lies the rub for the Reds. They have played arguably their two worst matches of the season on the continent in group play, suffering a 1-0 loss at current Group D leaders Napoli and then a stunning 2-0 setback at Red Star earlier this month with a chance to put one foot through the door to reach the knockout round.
Liverpool can clinch a spot in the round of 16 with a victory and a win or draw by Napoli against Red Star.
“Two very ambitious teams will face each other in a very, very interesting competition, in an interesting situation in the group because we brought Belgrade back in the group [by losing in Serbia], so we go for everything and that’s how football should be,” Klopp said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Very often when you see groups after the draw you know immediately who will go through. The first two are pretty clear most of the time, but in this group it was clear from the beginning it was a difficult one and that’s it. We are here, we didn’t ever think negatively about it, we were looking forward to the game in Paris.”
Liverpool have won both their matches since the defeat to Red Star, recording clean sheet victories over Fulham and Watford, including a 3-0 romp past the latter at Vicarage Road last weekend. Mo Salah has scored in both contests and has five goals in his last five matches across all competitions, but the more welcome news was Firmino ending a four-match goalless drought with a marker right before the final whistle.
The match also showed what could be Klopp’s eventual evolution from a 4-3-3 set-up to a 4-2-3-1 formation in which Salah is the most forward striker and Firmino in the hole behind him flanked by Sadio Mane and Xherdan Shaqiri. It does not seem likely Liverpool will hold that formation for this match given PSG’s offensive prowess and Shaqiri’s ability to make a bigger impact in Champions League play given the style of competition, but Klopp has been pleased Firmino has adapted to the new role asked of him.
“In the last home game against Fulham, I had 20 German coaches in the stadium. Most of them were friends of mine, and I know them all,” Klopp told Liverpool’s official website. “They watched the game. I’m not sure what the critics were saying about Bobby Firmino after the game, but when I saw the coaches later and we had drinks together, they were like ‘Bobby Firmino… what a player!’
“It’s because of the small things he is doing, he is working hard, he is here, he is there, he has five goals now and he opens 5,000 gaps for everybody. It’s about how you see it.”
Klopp has a midfield that is almost 100 percent as Fabinho was the only regular who did not make the 21-man roster who traveled to Paris. But it will be the central defence pairing of Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk who will likely be the most influential factors in whether Liverpool can shake off their road blues while wearing their trademark home red kits.
“We know they are top players – their strike force is something they are known worldwide for,” Gomez said. “As a team we just have to play our way. We have fundamentals that we stick to, that the gaffer gives us; we have to defend as a team regardless of who we’re playing.
“We do analysis and we have to prepare for different formations and different set-ups but our general philosophies in defending stay the same. That’s what we have to stick to.”
PSG could not figure out a way to beat Napoli as the two sides played to draws at both venues, and their Champions League play runs in stark contrast to their seeming invinicbility in Ligue 1. Les Parisiens retained their 100 percent record domestically last weekend with a 1-0 victory over Toulouse.
Thomas Tuchel held out both Neymar and Mbappe to let the superstars nurse injuries, and the third part of their potent strike force, Edinson Cavani, supplied the contest’s only goal in the ninth minute. It was the ninth goal in as many league matches for the Uruguay international, whose 10 overall goals are third behind the pair’s 13 apiece.
Both players are expected to be in PSG’s first XI for this game, but Teuchel believes his defence is going to be as important, if not more, to the chances of the French club’s side of getting through to the round of 16.
“The key will be to defend well against Liverpool’s attacking trio, that’s always difficult because they can change position. Firmino can play everywhere, he’s fluid, able to change rhythm,” Tuchel said. “They can also play in 4-4-2, but that doesn’t change much in terms of their structure or their approach to the game.
“It’s necessary for us to play with confidence and play attacking football and have the desire to win. The ball has to move around quickly, we have to take the right decisions quickly, and we have to limit the number of touches in our opponents’ half.”
PSG will have at least two notable changes from the reverse fixture as keeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Marco Verratti are expected to be in the starting XI. Buffon served a suspension for his red card while with Juventus as they lost to eventual champions Real Madrid in the second leg of last year’s Champions League semifinals while Verratti served a one-match ban for his two yellow cards accrued in PSG’s second-leg exit to the reigning three-time champions in the round of 16.
Liverpool will conclude their group play at home versus Napoli, while PSG caps their six group play matches at last-place Red Star.
Per Ladbrokes, PSG are firm favourites to hold serve and claim all three points with 11/10 odds, while Liverpool are a 21/10 pick to return to Anfield with a vital three road points. The odds of the sides splitting the points and contributing to a free-for-all in the final match day are 27/10.
The French side have 9/5 odds on winning with more than 2.5 goals scored, while a like result for Liverpool offers 16/5 odds. A 0-0 or 1-1 draw is the next-most likely outcome according to the oddsmakers with 19/4 odds, while PSG get 11/2 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 victory compared to Liverpool’s 17/2 for the same such results.
PSG’s attacking trio of Mbappe, Neymar and Cavani are all joint-top options to open the scoring at 9/2, while Liverpool’s trident of Salah (5/1), Mane (7/1) and Firmino (15/2) are joined by teammate Daniel Sturridge (6/1). Angel Di Maria is a distant fourth option for Les Parisiens at 10/1, which is also 10th overall.
Surprisingly, no one is better than even money to score a goal in this match, with Neymar and Mbappe joint top at 5/4 and Cavani just off their pair at 11/8. Salah is 7/5 to lead Liverpool’s options, trailed by Sturridge (7/4), Mane (21/10) and Firmino (11/5). Expected to come off the bench because Klopp is likely to use a 4-3-3, Shaqiri offers a 10/3 return to score during the contest.
First off, is there anyone who really thought Mbappe and Neymar would not play in this match? Ok, just wanted to get that out of the way. Onto the match.
Though it sounds like hyperbole, it does not feel out of place to say Liverpool’s season could hinge on getting at least one point from this contest. No one will say it out loud, but there has to be a certain amount of exhaustion and frustration chasing Manchester City in the Premier League. Yes, Liverpool are just two points behind the reigning champions, but how quickly do good feelings wash away after a 3-0 road victory when scoreboard watching reveals a 4-0 victory by City?
In this competition, Liverpool only have themselves to blame for what could be a potentially disastrous plight. The Reds should have taken at least one point from their other two road contests and clearly played below their capabilities in both contests against sides they were perceived to be better than or, at worst, equal to.
Paris-Saint Germain, it can be argued, are a side better than Liverpool. They are unbeaten in 12 (10-2-0) since the loss to Liverpool and have conceded just seven goals in those contests. The trip of Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani have accounted for 24 in that span. And while Liverpool have a good amount of pressure on them to return to the Champions League knockout round, it still dwarves the amount on Les Parisiens, who in some ways have become France’s answer to Manchester City as an ultra-rich squad who have yet to crack Europe’s true elite.
It says a lot Buffon is going to get the start in this match over Alphonse Arreola, having appeared in only one other Champions League match for the side, their 1-1 draw at Napoli in which the Italian side scored their lone goal from the spot. This could be Buffon’s last go-round at the one trophy which has eluded him all these years, and the self-applied pressure could also factor here.
This is a game that could be played in fits and spurts, where individual defensive breakdowns lead to goals scored. The winner of this match is who will have the lesser amount, and given Liverpool’s road form in this group, it is hard to imagine PSG not getting the inside track to advancing with a victory here.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Paris-St. Germain 2, Liverpool 1.