Excitement!: Red Bull Salzburg predictably did their job at Genk, beating the Belgians 4-1, and giving themselves a chance at qualifying two weeks from now, when they host group leaders Liverpool at the Red Bull Arena.
A win tonight would have made the Reds untouchable in the last round of the group stage, but as things stand, Jürgen Klopp’s men will have to avoid defeat in Austria in order to secure advancement. With their opponents boasting a goal difference of 16-11 in the first five matches, it is unlikely the Reds will be able to simply put a stranglehold on the game in order to grab the necessary point — and, more importantly, deny Salzburg their three — and an intense, high-scoring affair seems just about guaranteed.
Napoli, on the other hand, having been eliminated by Liverpool in the final round of the group stage last year, have put themselves in an excellent position, needing only a home win over Genk in order to make good their advancement. The Italians did draw the Belgians the last time they met, however, so nothing is set in stone quite yet.
Squad Rotation: Building on the previous point, the fact that the Reds require a result in the final round in all likelihood means that Klopp will have to bring and play all of his stars at the Red Bull Arena. That is less than ideal in the crowded winter fixture list, where a win tonight could have allowed the German to rotate his squad and give his starters a much needed rest.
A trip to Bournemouth and a visit from Watford aren’t the most intimidating matchups to bookend the trip to Austria, but with a game every three days for 40 days, and a title race that is likely to look a lot closer at the end of the season than it does right now, any chance to give Virgil van Dijk, Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and the likes a breather would be most welcome. Liverpool missed a chance at that tonight.
Ankles: Mohamed Salah looked fresh tonight, but missed the trip to Crystal Palace at the weekend with a knock to his ankle. Andy Robertson has been struggling with his ankle for the past month or so. Xherdan Shaqiri’s calves being vulnerable to anything but the most eldritch magic seems impossible, so that’s probably and ankle thing too. And against Napoli, Fabino limped off after 20 minutes having twisted his ankle under Hirving Lozano.
No word yet on the severity of the Brazilian’s injury, but with the games coming thick and fast for another month and change, the loss of the side’s most irreplaceable midfielder could prove fatal to the Reds’ fortunes this season. The 26-year old was going to miss the weekend’s clash with Brighton due to suspension anyway, and hopefully the Melwood physio team will be able to work some magic by the time the Merseyside derby rolls around.
With Trent Alexander-Arnold on the bench, Jürgen Klopp opted to go with Joe Gomez at right-back. The former Charlton man has spent significant time playing at both fullbacks in his Liverpool career, but there is little doubt that he lacks the playmaking abilities that make Alexander-Arnold such a crucial component of this team.
As a result, Gomez was asked to stick to the touchline and overlap — where Alexander-Arnold often sits deeper and narrower in order to deliver his swerving crosses — serving almost entirely as a decoy, while Jordan Henderson tucked inside, doing his best Trent impression.
It did not come off all that well, and at the hour mark, Gomez was substituted for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Henderson was moved to the right fullback spot for the first time since the early days of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure. As Salah moved inside and Ox took on an inside forward role, the dynamic on the right flank immediately felt more familiar, and the Reds were able to push another player into the Napoli box without losing any service from the right side.
Whether Henderson will spend more time deputising for Alexander-Arnold at fullback this season remains to be seen, but — in terms of attacking output, at least — he provides much more similar attributes than Gomez does, and should be considered an option ahead of the young defender.
What Happens Next
The winter grind continues, as the Reds host Brighton at the weekend, before Everton come to Anfield for their annual spanking in the Merseyside derby. Marco Silva is under intense pressure in the Toffee seat, as Everton sit 16th, four points off relegation, despite having spent €400m on players in the past three years. Do not be surprised if “sacked in the morning” rings around Anfield at some point in the next week, is what we’re saying.