After his side’s debut in European competition, Hoffenheim’s young manager Julian Nagelsmann had believed that the Liverpool side that beat his team 2-1 at the Wirsol Rhein-Neckar-Arena had been lucky to win. He cited his side’s better possession and higher pass numbers as the proof that Hoffenheim put in a better performance but could not finish their chances. This week they will get a chance to correct that. The German side travel to Liverpool to play the second leg of the UEFA Champions League qualifier on Wednesday and decide which of the two sides go into the group stages of the elite European competition and which one is destined for Thursday night football in the Europa League.
Whatever be Nagelsmann’s comments, Jurgen Klopp’s side left Sinsheim with a one-goal lead, and more importantly with two away goals. They are by far the biggest favorites to go through to the group stages of Champions League. Not that Klopp was taking any chances. He rested some of his key players for Liverpool’s first home league game (a 1-0 win) of the season with Crystal Palace on Saturday, so that they can be fresh for the Wednesday encounter. The strong lead and away goals notwithstanding, Klopp will be aware that his side has not clicked as well as they did during the pre-season, ever since their talisman Coutinho has put in the transfer request.
Hoffenheim indeed had better possession and passes than Liverpool in the first leg. But for all of Nagelsmann’s bravado and belief in his side, overturning a one-goal lead and two away goals at Anfield on a European night is extremely difficult. He can check with Borussia Dortmund. His side needs at least two goals to enforce extra time and a few more to win the tie in normal time, because at home Liverpool can be expected to score a goal or two. He also rested some of his key team members including the fearsome attackers – Gnabry, Kramaric and Wagner. It is a tough task that awaits Hoffenheim but with their manager’s belief that they played better football in the first leg, will they be able to achieve it?
- Liverpool are unbeaten against German sides at home with a record of 11 wins and 3 draws from 14 matches.
- With the 2-1 at Sinsheim, they have stretched their unbeaten run over Bundesliga clubs across all venue to 7 matches, 5 wins and 2 draws.
- The last two German teams to play competitive games at Anfield – Augsburg and Dortmund, both left with one-goal losses. A repeat of that will suit Liverpool perfectly fine.
- There is some truth to Nagelsmann’s point about Hoffenheim being unlucky. In last two games, including the first leg and the first league game against Werder Bremen, Hoffenheim have shot 26 times, with 7 on target, 7 blocked and 2 goals. Perhaps if he coaches his team to shoot more from the penalty area, the shot conversion would improve. Out of the 26 shots, 50% were from out of the area.
By his Roma standards, Mohammed Salah has had a quiet start to his Liverpool career. He scored in his first league game and harassed Hoffenheim’s defence incessantly in the first leg but he is yet to put in a head turning performance. He was brought in only as a substitute on Saturday against Palace and will be itching to start on Wednesday and seal the tie as soon as possible. He has scored three goals in Champions League qualification rounds in his career and three more in later stages so far in his career. He will be eager to add to this tally in front of a packed Anfield crowd.
Former Arsenal winger Serge Gnabry returns to England on Wednesday. Perhaps he has a point or two to prove. He was not able to make a mark for Arsenal or West Brom (half-season loan). For Arsenal, he made 18 appearances and scored once and assisted two goals in 872 minutes. For West Brom, he did not contribute a single goal in 135 minutes in the first half of 2015-16. But after Arsenal sold him to Werder Bremen last year, he has grown into an accomplished winger and a major threat in attack, scoring 11 and assisting two goals for Bremen in 1970 minutes during last season. His performances invited a bid from Bayern Munich, who loaned him to Hoffenheim immediately following his move. Gnabry will be keen to exorcise the ghosts of his poor time in England and will trouble Liverpool defence, just like he did in the first leg.
After resting key players on Saturday, Klopp should be able to call upon most of his squad for this encounter. The only absentees could be Lallana and Clyne, both of whom are suffering from long-term injuries. Another major absentee will be Phillippe Coutinho, who is recovering from a back injury, as well as “transferitis”, as Liverpool reject bid after bid from Barcelona. Klopp will likely go with the same team that played the first leg, with a possible change at left-back as Alberto Moreno can make way for Andy Robertson, who had a great game on Saturday. Another available player is Daniel Sturridge but he will only be used if Liverpool need his services at any time during the match.
Nagelsmann should have his entire squad available, which means that he can play the same starting XI, that started the first leg. He might be tempted to play Kramaric in a slight advanced midfield role, while playing with a lone striker in a 3-4-2-1, instead of the 3-5-2 that had started last Tuesday, as well as on Saturday vs Bremen.
Both the teams will benefit tremendously from an early goal. So, we can expect both of them to start off flying and trying to wrest initiative. However, despite Nagelsmann’s beliefs, facing Liverpool in a European competition at home is an extremely difficult challenge. Liverpool’s attack is definitely likely to score a goal or two and that will effectively hand them the tie. In fact, it is quite possible that the Reds continue their unbeaten European run at Anfield and send another German team home with a one-goal defeat.
Liverpool 2 – 1 Hoffenheim