NICE of Liverpool to warm up for this special night with a tonking. The kind of tonking that makes all of Europe sit up, take notice, and scoff. The beating of Arsenal and the euphoria that followed stylish Champions qualification, seem a while ago now. The weekend’s 5-0 beating at Manchester City is all too fresh.
An aeon ago, was the bad night at the office in Basel in May 2016. Liverpool’s ninth European trophy beckoned, and Sevilla were in their path. In a busy first 45 mins The Reds all but buried them. The failure to actually do so cost them dear. Liverpool discovered that night that Sevilla has a heart that beats as loudly as we feel ours does. On that night in Switzerland they roused themselves from a despairing first-half display. They dug deep and remembered who they were. They were/are the team that wins Europa Leagues (five in 10 years). They are the team that only the Madrid sides and Barcelona finish ahead of.
The Sevilla team of spring 2016 is on paper not the team and setup that will rock up at Anfield on Wednesday night. Legendary manager Unai Emery has moved to Paris and a bigger stage. All but three of the team that beat Liverpool in Basel have left the club. Steven N’Zonzi and Ever Banega are the main men that remain, and Banega actually departed Sevilla before recently returning.
The club in the post-Emery era has maintained its status. A critic might say it has plateaued but that would be to underestimate the task faced after Emery. Chairman Jose Castro Carmona committed the football club to an investment programme designed to thwart any potential for regression. The three they have taken from City — Samir Nasri, Nolito and Jesus Navas — demonstrated that Sevilla were prepared to bring in high earners and pay the going rate.
Jürgen Klopp was scarred by Basel. Thoughts of mastering Sevilla will have kept him up nights lately. They are not his nemesis of 2016, and yet simultaneously, they very much are. Klopp must try to find a way to make Sevilla the side that can at times fall short. The one that struggled to get past poor Turkish opponents in the play-off round. The Sevilla dumped out of the Champions League by bottom half of the Premier League Leicester City. Sevilla beat Real Madrid last season, but they do not rise to every challenge.
The truth is that a tame draw might in the wider scheme of things suit both sides. Rafa Benitez or Gerard Houllier may have set a Liverpool side up for a contest like tonight’s assured not to lose as a first priority. Klopp doesn’t appear to have the mindset or perhaps skillset to even begin to attempt to deliver this. His Liverpool will attack Sevilla. At the very least, this will be the big plan.
Klopp’s squad is mainly a fit and fresh one, Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne excepted. There is a doubt surrounding Mo Salah who missed Tuesday’s training due to illness. If Mo makes it, Klopp will have options. Hugely appealing options. Most want to put Philippe Coutinho’s flirtation with Barcelona behind us and are just craving seeing what a £150million footballer looks like in Liverpool red.
The Coutinho that waved us off with a free-kick goal in the last game of 2016-17 was a terrific player. One of Liverpool best. Probably worth £70/80m in an inflated market. The Philippe who either starts or bounces up from the bench tonight became the world’s second most valuable player, or thereabouts. The player’s dream move to Barca may have failed to materialise but their dogged pursuit of him exalted his status. Big players react to becoming desired by stepping up. They refuse to let the flattery prove false. Luis Suarez is the ultimate example of this phenomenon. It doesn’t feel like fate tempting to predict that Coutinho will only return a better player from his summer of discontent. He will want to control the course of his own destiny. He can only do that one way. By becoming the very very best footballer he can be.
The Liverpool manager was patient in holding Coutinho back at the weekend. Surely he won’t be able to control the urge to start him tonight. Sevilla’s hearts, stout as they be, will shrink just a bit if they hear that Little Phil is being set upon them from the off. If they then pan their gazes across the opposition forward line and see Sadio Mane and Mo Salah also stretching and straining on their leashes they will feel something in the pits of their stomachs and in their legs. That’s fear, boys. Liverpool can be a scary team.
Predicted 11: Karius; Gomez, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Henderson, Can, Coutinho; Mane, Salah, Firmino.
Kick off: 7.45pm on BT Sport 2
Referee: Danny Makkelie (Netherlands)
Odds: Liverpool 3-4, Draw 16-5, Sevilla 21-5