LIVERPOOL haven’t played in a bigger football match than the upcoming second-leg tie against Hoffenheim at home since the Europa League final 15 months ago. It has all been building towards this moment.
In the aftermath of the debacle of that final in Basel in May 2016, when Liverpool threw away a year’s solid work in European competition with our shabbiest 45 minutes since Stoke had humiliated us with four goals in 45 horrific minutes at the very end of the 2014-15 season.
Jürgen Klopp will have realised he was starting all over again. His brief, upon appointment eight months earlier, would have been to return the football club to Europe’s premier club competition. He had very nearly achieved that, but the miss was as good as a mile.
The 2016-17 season did not end in May for Liverpool, but it will end on Wednesday night. The work the manager and his players began 12 months ago by defeating Arsenal at the Emirates reaches its logical conclusion when the result of the tie against Hoffenheim is known. Only once that final whistle has been blown will the club’s 2017-18 campaign truly commence.
The victory in Germany a week ago should calm most nerves, but Hoffenheim did not go down lightly in that 2-1 defeat and it would be a surprise if they were suddenly meek at Anfield.
Their manager, Julian Nagelsmann, fancies himself and realises that the lack of substance in his CV necessitates him putting the hours into building his own myth. His post-match bluster and brash exclamation that playing away is no different to playing at home sounded upstart-ish rather than confident.
The sager Klopp may well choose to remind his players privately, and the Liverpool crowd publicly, that they have the opportunity to disavow Nagelsmann of his misconception. Talk is of meeting the bus and pyro a-go-go. That’s all well and good, but let’s hope The Kop are in mid-week mode and raise the roof.
Hoffenheim can beat Liverpool. Hoffenheim can shock Anfield, but Anfield can and will shock Hoffenheim. There have been some big away team performances in our cauldron, under the lights in European games, but they are few and far between. Innumerate enough that we remember them – the night Barcelona and Marc Overmars turned over Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool. The night Rafa Benitez brought his Valencia to Anfield. Though there are not many others in modern memory.
A further backdrop and distraction to Wednesday night’s shit or death encounter has been the slow descent of the transfer window. By the time you read this, Liverpool may have another player, stranger things have happened.
It looks likely that we won’t have lost Phil Coutinho. His disloyalty and perfidy are hopefully yesterday’s news. Liverpool don’t have the time and none of us should waste the energy on resentment towards him. If he pulls on a red shirt and runs and tackles and jumps and scores for Liverpool then that is all we require. It is all we should ever require.
We don’t know Coutinho nor walk in his shoes. We surely can only cast judgement on his manifestation in our colours. Let him be the Coutinho who scores wondrously, who threads passes through eyes of needles and who wins football matches and that we may ask for nothing else.
Let’s show Phil that it is no accident that Anfield produces so many heroes. That Liverpool FC have so many gods is not pure happenstance. Our crowd, our cause, gives young, determined lads wings. They sense our energy, trust and power and learn to soar on our watch. Ask Kenny Dalglish. Ask Ian Rush. Ask Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez. Ask Steven Gerrard. Would you have become the players you became without us, lads?
Even without Coutinho, Liverpool can and must beat Hoffenheim and ensure the club are in that Thursday morning draw for the group stages. Klopp has not got the depth of squad he anticipated having by this stage of the new season so resources and bodies are stretched.
At home to Crystal Palace at the weekend players were rested. Non starters were Dejan Lovren, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Albie Moreno, Emre Can and Mo Salah. All four surely make the first 11 for Wednesday night then. Others have fresher legs because they have only started one match in the past 10 days. James Milner and Andy Robertson need games and will be at the forefront of the manager’s thinking.
Those who have had no respite – starting all of the last three games – will be rigorously assessed by Klopp and his team for signs of finding the going that bit too tough. Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino will all expect to play a fourth game on the spin, but their boss knows that he will be taking a risk in selecting them.
I see the manager mulling over two quite binary options. The first would be to simply play the first team. The side that started at Watford and in Hoffenheim, more or less. The odds are on this type of selection. Perhaps Milner may come in for either Moreno or Wijnaldum in this scenario.
Klopp could take a very different approach. He may realise that it is far more important that Liverpool are set up not to concede goals than it is to score them, given the lead we already have in this tie. At the very least it is fair to say that the first goal for Liverpool is not as big a first goal as it might be in other contexts. Liverpool scoring first doesn’t radically alter Hoffenheim’s primary target. That would remain the requirement to score twice in 90 minutes.
If Klopp decides to contain first then he may opt for a block-like midfield four of Henderson, Can, Milner and Wijnaldum. He might then select Salah and possibly even Dom Solanke as central strikers and marauders on the counter attack. In conservative mode, the Liverpool manager might even prefer Joe Gomez and Robertson as his full backs and more natural defenders than Trent and Albie.
Either way, the stakes are so high that it is hard to escape the conclusion and cliché that it will be the stoutest hearts that prevail. That the team that want this most will triumph. I can’t conceive that it won’t be us. No one can want this more than us.
Predicted 11: Mignolet; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Lovren, Milner; Henderson, Can, Wijnaldum; Mane, Salah, Firmino.
Kick off: 7.45pm on BT Sport 2
Referee: Daniele Orsato
Odds: Liverpool 4-6, Draw 7-2, Hoffenheim 9-2
Hoffenheim’s head of international relations and scouting, Lutz Pfannenstiel, spoke to The Anfield Wrap in our Under The Lights show. SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player to listen to that as well as over 40 shows a month. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…