When Liverpool ended the last season in fourth position, the fans were overjoyed. Champions League nights at Anfield and in other hallowed European stadia awaited them. But there was a small detail to be ironed out. The Reds have a playoff to negotiate before they can actually participate in the Champions League group stage and compete for later stages. On 4th August, they found out that their opponents are going to be European debutants Hoffenheim, who ended their Bundesliga season in fourth position in 2016-17. This tie looks both difficult and a bit easy for Liverpool in both aspects. The five times champions will be playing the debutants, first away in the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena on 15th August and then at Anfield on 23rd August. From the perspective of experience of the opponents in European competition and the distance to be traveled, this tie appears favourable for Liverpool.
But then this Hoffenheim side includes most of the squad that had a hugely successful league season in 2016-17. They collected four points off Bayern and one each off RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund, the three teams above them in the league. They are led by Bundesliga’s youngest-ever head coach Julian Nagelsmann, who has inspired the team from relegation battlers to European competitors. The team has lost just one first eleven player in Niklas Sule, whose move to Bayern Munich had been agreed much earlier last season. They have added Havard Nordveit from West Ham and Nico Schulz from Borussia Monchengladbach.
Liverpool come in to the first leg of the playoff having played their first league match on 12th August. In that first game against Watford, they came back from a goal down to lead by 2-1 and then by 3-2, to eventually concede in injury time and take only a point from the winnable tie. The game highlighted their continued vulnerability against set pieces and their awry defence, including the lack of creativity in the midfield in Coutinho’s absence. These problems will not disappear overnight as the Reds head to Germany and they will need to address them urgently to ensure that they do reach the group stages of the European competition their fans covet so much.
- Liverpool are unbeaten in their last six encounters with German opposition; their overall record reads P36 W17 D13 L6 F58 A31 (W11 D3 L0 at home, W2 D8 L4 away)..
- The last five European games at Anfield have produced a home victory; in fact, Liverpool are unbeaten in nine home matches in Europe, since a 3-0 reverse to Real Madrid CF on 22 October 2014. In contrast, they have won just one of their last 12 European away fixtures (D6 L5), that victory coming at FC Rubin Kazan on 5 November 2015 in their UEFA Europa League group.
- Klopp faced Hoffenheim 16 times as a manager during his career in Germany. His record was D1 L1 with 1. FSV Mainz 05, and W5 D5 L4 with Borussia Dortmund.
- Hoffenheim’s Nadiem Amiri, Sandro Wagner and Kerem Demirbay, together with Emre Can of Liverpool, helped Germany win the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia in July.
While the media focus is on Sandro Wagner’s potential absence from the first leg due to a minor injury he suffered in a friendly with Bologna, the real threat from the German side comes from their Croatian forward Andrej Kramaric. He was their top scorer last season with 15 goals in 34 appearances. His strengths include holding on to the ball, counter attacks and indirect set pieces – all of which are Liverpool’s pain points. He scored 0.6 goals per 90 minutes in Bundesliga last season and his manager will be hoping that he starts his 2017-18 campaign in style on the European stage.
In Phillippe Coutinho’s possible absence, Sadio Mane is Liverpool’s main goal threat. Firmino and new signing Salah are quite proficient at scoring goals themselves but as Mane’s first season for the Reds showed, he brings an edge to the Reds’ attack. He has started the 2017-18 campaign with a bang and already notched a goal on Saturday at Vicarage Road. Jurgen Klopp will be hoping that the Senegalese winger continues his goal scoring form.
Nagelsmann will most likely miss Sandro Wagner, who was the second-highest scorer for Hoffenheim last season with 11 goals in 31 games. He was substituted early in the friendly against Bologna but it remains to be seen whether he can start against Liverpool on Tuesday night. Other than Wagner, the German side should be at full-strength and raring to start their 2017-18 campaign with a bang.
Jurgen Klopp will be worried a bit that he is starting what promises to be a long campaign with a bunch of injuries. Adam Lallana remains sidelined due to injury, while the in-demand Phil Coutinho is also likely to be unavailable due to a back injury. Daniel Sturridge could feature on Tuesday but is not likely to be 100% fit. Nathaniel Clyne also remains in doubt, though after the defensive performance of Saturday, Klopp will fervently hope that his first-choice right back returns as soon as possible.
This two-legged playoff can launch Liverpool’s campaign or can hobble it badly, because if they lose the playoff, they descend to the now familiar group stages of Europa League. Klopp knows this and will throw everything to get an away goal or two to ensure an easier home leg. Having said that, at present it seems nothing can stop opponents scoring against the Reds’ defence, Hoffenheim definitely have a chance at scoring a few themselves. It is a high-stakes game for Liverpool but for the German side, it is their first European experience. I think Klopp and Liverpool’s European experience can pull them through this playoff but the first leg will be a cagey affair.
TSG Hoffenheim 1 – 1 Liverpool