The final matchday of UEFA Champions League group stage is for many teams a knockout game as the result could decide their continued future in the competition. However, it is not usual for last season’s Champions to be fighting for a Last 16 berth till the last group game. Nor is it usual for one of the highest scoring teams in the competition to be struggling to reach the next round. But that is exactly where Liverpool and FC Red Bull Salzburg will find themselves in this last group game as they go head to head in Austria on Tuesday night. The group (E) is still fairly open as both these teams can qualify for the next round, as can Napoli who host KRC Genk at the same time.
Salzburg were definitely the team to catch everyone’s eye in the first gameweek when they demolished Genk at home, with their star forward Erling Haaland scoring a first half hattrick. That was followed by spirited performances that resulted in losses against Liverpool (away) and Napoli (home), which were followed by a draw in Naples and another drubbing of Genk in Belgium. That has left Jesse Marsch’s team 3rd in a tight group, needing a win and external help to qualify. They will qualify if they beat Liverpool and Napoli do not beat Genk. If Napoli win, Salzburg must beat the reigning Champions by a better scoreline than 4-3 by which they lost the return fixture on matchday 2. They must beat the Reds by a goal difference of 2, or at least not let Liverpool match the 3 goals they themselves scored at Anfield. Salzburg will feel they have a chance though as they come into this game after a strong performance, beating WSG Tirol by 5-1 in the domestic league (in which they remain undefeated) and they did harass Liverpool’s defence quite a bit at Anfield. Not many teams can claim that this season.
That Liverpool are yet to go through is a surprise, not just because they are the reigning Champions but also because domestically, they are flying, having dropped just two points from 16 games. They did begin their defence of the Champions League poorly, losing to Napoli away, before winning three on the bounce against Salzburg (at Anfield) and then twice against Genk. If they had won in matchday 5 against Napoli at home, they would have been through but they only managed a draw, which means that the Reds need to ensure that they do not lose or hope that Napoli lose to Genk. They too are coming off a strong win in the Premier League, brushing aside Bournemouth away with a 3-0 victory. But the domestic points tally is of no use on Tuesday as Jurgen Klopp’s men will need to ensure that they dig deep and eke out a win or a draw, just as they did against Napoli a year back.
- This will only be the second competitive meeting between Salzburg and Liverpool, following their matchday 2 clash at Anfield, when the Reds won 4-3 despite leading 3-0 after just 36 minutes. Liverpool have won five of their seven games against Austrian sides in all European competitions (W5 D1 L1), losing only to Grazer AK in a Champions League qualifier in 2004.
- Salzburg have lost four of their five matches against English opponents in all European competitions, conceding twice in every match. At home they lost to Blackburn 2-2 in September 2006 (UEFA Cup) and lost 0-2 vs Man City in September 2010 (Europa League).
- Liverpool’s away form in Europe is worrisome though. They have won only twice in their last 11 Champions League group stage games (W2 D3 L6), losing four of the last five (W1). The Reds last won consecutive away group games in the competition back in September 2008 under Rafa.
- Salzburg have won 15 and lost just one of their last 20 home games in European competition, with that defeat coming in the last home game vs Napoli. They also like to score a lot. Only Spurs (17) and Bayern Munich (121) have scored more goals than Marsch’s team (16) this season. Since 2003-04, the most goals scored by a side in the group stage to be eliminated is 16 scored by Chelsea in the 2012-13 season.
Erling Haaland is being compared to the legends of the game after his performances in the first five group games have yielded 8 goals. In Europe, he is currently scoring a goal every 37 minutes, which is indeed a rare strike rate. His non-penalty xG per 90 minutes in the Champions League is 1.09 and npXG + xA per 90 minutes is 1.19. This means that he is sure to score a non-penalty goal if he plays for 90 minutes. It is important and scary to note that he has played only 299 minutes of Champions League football (out of a possible 450). Jesse Marsch will be quite sure of his wonder-striker scoring on Tuesday, making himself the only player to have scored in their first six appearances in the competition.
For all the heroics from Liverpool at the attacking end in the Champions League last season, their Champions League title win would not have been possible without a few super saves from their goalkeeper. Alisson produced a couple of magical saves against Napoli in the matchday 6 of last season to ensure that the Reds progressed to the last 16. This season too, he will need to be at his best to ensure that same outcome. Alisson has played 3 Champions League games this season and has made 5 saves from 8 shots on target (save % = 62.5). But he is yet to keep a clean sheet in the competition. In the Premier League as well, he has put in 16 saves from 21 shots on target faced (76.2 save%) but has managed only one clean sheet – against Bournemouth on Saturday.
For Salzburg, other than injuries to goalkeeper Alexander Walke (fractured foot), midfielder Antoine Bernede (tibia fracture) , right back Patrick Farkas (circulation problems) and forward Sekou Koita(abdominal injury), Jesse Marsch should have his entire squad to choose from.
For Liverpool, in addition to long term injuries to Joel Matip, Fabinho and Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren also suffered from a knock in the first half against Bournemouth and had to be replaced. Other than these absentees, Jurgen Klopp should have his full squad to choose from. He will likely go with his best XI to ensure continued future in this competition and defer any rotation to the game against Watford next weekend.
Other than the convoluted odds that Salzburg face to go through, they also face another challenge. They face Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in a knockout game, which is not the final of the competition. It’s been a while since Klopp lost a game like that and he has never lost such a game when in charge of Liverpool. Salzburg will test the Reds’ resolve for sure but Jurgen’s men look the most likely to go through.
Salzburg 2 – 2 Liverpool