After a short winter break, the UEFA Champions League returns this week and alongside the marquee fixture of PSG vs Real Madrid, we will see two teams that have relatively outperformed in their groups face each other. In this first leg, FC Porto will host Liverpool at the Estádio do Dragão on Wednesday night.
Porto had a very open group in the group stages and they beat quite long odds to reach the knockout stages. Having beaten the likes of RB Leipzig and AS Monaco to reach this stage, they are bound to be very confident. They are not a very defensive team either, as the Dragão has seen the second-most number of goals scored in the group stages. On the domestic front, Porto are leading in the Primeira Liga NOS, while they are also alive in the Taca de Portugal. Also, while Liverpool have been more successful in Champions League over the years, more recently, Porto have reached the knockout stages at a higher frequency than Liverpool. All these factors make it a challenge for Liverpool to progress beyond Porto.
For Liverpool, while progress beyond the group stages was not assumed to be difficult (other teams included – Spartak Moscow and Maribor), but still topping the group was going to be difficult. But the Reds turned out to be one of only four teams that remained unbeaten throughout the group stages and easily topped their group. Domestically they are out of both the cups and this weekend’s victory over Southampton ensured that they remain third in the League, just two points behind Manchester United. While reaching the knockout stages after so many years might in itself seem like an achieved goal but progress to the quarter-finals will be seen as a more definite sign of progress for the Reds. This must be reason enough for Liverpool to rise up to the challenge.
That defense is where Porto’s problems lie, as Felipe is suspended for this game while Ivan Marcano is also doubtful to start alongside Diego Reyes in central defense. Other key players – Vincent Aboubakar and Danillo Pereira, along with Andre Andre are to be assessed ahead of kick-off and may not start.
Liverpool have a suspension of their own in the form of Emre Can but they have fewer injury worries. Jordan Henderson should replace Can in the midfield, but Joe Gomez may not be able to return to the starting XI as he remains doubtful with his injury. This means that Jurgen Klopp might field the same starting XI that he fielded against Southampton, only swapping Henderson for Can.
- Liverpool are unbeaten against Porto, having played them four times in Europe and having won twice. The two sides have met once in the knockout stages of a European competition (2000/01 UEFA Cup Quarter Finals). Liverpool won 2-0 on aggregate and went on to win the competition.
- Porto have reached the knockout stages in the second consecutive season this year, a feat they last performed in 2009/10. But, they have lost their last three Champions League knockout games, having conceded 9 goals and having scored a single goal. Meanwhile, Liverpool have reached the knockout stages of Champions League for the first time since 2008/09.
- The Reds were the second most prolific scorers in the group stages, scoring 23 goals, just one less than 24 scored by PSG. They also had the most touches in opponents’ boxes (251). However, Porto were the most prolific goal scorers (8) from set pieces in the group stages.
- According to the clubs’ ELO Ratings, English clubs are Porto’s bane, as the Portuguese team have dropped 82.3 ELO points against English clubs in 38 games having conceded 66 goals while scoring 44. On the other hand, Liverpool’s record against Portuguese clubs is better as they have gained 17.7 points in 18 games, having scored 28, and conceded 16.
With Porto’s most prolific scorer in Europe – Vincent Aboubakar likely to miss out on Wednesday night’s game along with the midfielder Danillo Pereira, the responsibility of feeding Moussa Marega in the attack will rest with Yacine Brahimi. While nowhere near as prolific in scoring as Aboubakar or Marega, Brahimi makes up with his creativity. He averages 5.5 dribbles and 1.2 key passes per game in the Champions League. To keep the opponents guessing he also manages 1.3 shots per game. Playing on the left flank Brahimi can be a handful for the young Trent Alexander Arnold.
With 28 goals in 33 appearances in all competitions, Mohamed Salah is one of the most in-form attackers in Europe. He has scored 5 and assisted one in 6 appearances in the group stages, at a rate of providing a goal every 81 minutes. He also comes in to Wednesday’s game having scored one and assisted one against Southampton. For Liverpool to gain a foothold in this first leg, their attack has to fire and Mohamed Salah is the heart of that attack. If he continues in the same vein of form, he will definitely test FC Porto’s defense.
Although Liverpool’s defense managed a clean sheet on Sunday night against Saints, all teams with decent attacking talent can expect to trouble the Reds’ defense and to score a goal or two. FC Porto play entertaining, pressing, and quick football and the quality that they possess on the wings and at the top ensures that they will score a goal or two. But because they play such interesting football, Liverpool also might find the space to play their game in, which should mean goals for the Reds as well. Dragão should continue to hold its reputation of being a high scoring venue and we should see a score draw.