IF this Liverpool team have a nemesis, it unleashed all of its power for 30 minutes in the Salzburg arena on Tuesday night.
The Austrian side are not the best team in Europe, but in bursts can do a very passable impression of it. Jürgen Klopp’s Reds will face bigger European reputations at home and abroad, but few foes would be able to better prepare them for the tests to come.
Jürgen Klopp looked a man who had learned something new about his lads, as he spoke in the post-match press room. He exuded something beyond mere joy at the result or satisfaction with the performance. He was almost defiant but didn’t quite want to reveal why.
To a wider, perhaps only half-interested, audience, Liverpool had despatched a second-tier side with a perfunctory 2-0 victory. Klopp knew differently, though.
He was all but gritting his teeth trying not to be overly effusive about the power that the Austrian ‘minnows’ had unleashed upon his team. He couldn’t help himself but be honest and acknowledge that, for the first time in quite a while, this all-conquering Liverpool side had been truly tested.
Knowing this, having witnessed it had clearly moved Klopp. He’d seen his men look into the belly of the beast and not just survived but emerged with renewed power.
As breathtaking as Salzburg’s attacking play was in the game’s opening quarter, Liverpool’s defensive resistance was its match. The concentration and courage were a masterclass in these arts. Van Dijk is the world’s best in his position and on Tuesday he relished the opportunity to showcase exactly why he is so regarded.
Jürgen Klopp was all but choked with pride because he had seen the last remaining doubt about his Liverpool extinguished. They had taken on a side that had the potential to be their Kryptonite, tamed and then demolished them.
Klopp knows that Liverpool are close to the completion of the first phase of a mission. In August, he will have challenged his team to be top at Christmas and qualified as group winners in the Champions League. Whatever Watford bring, both objectives will have been achieved.
If Salzburg were at times the best Liverpool have faced this campaign then Watford, in prospect at least, may be just about the worst. They have won only one league game, have sacked their manager and remain rooted to the foot of the Premier League table.
Watford’s main problem has been that they have entirely forgotten how to score goals. They have just nine all season, and virtually every other side in the division has at least double their tally.
If there’s a ray of hope for them it’s their defensive record. If their outlier 8-0 defeat to Man City is set aside, they’ve conceded a not terrible total of 22, in 16 games this season. Only seven sides have conceded less.
Jürgen Klopp will be aware of this and caution his team not to take breaking down the bottom club for granted. The manager’s team selections during this intense period of fixtures has been difficult to predict. Just how he likes it, no doubt.
Although the players will have enjoyed the relative luxury of a 96-hour respite since their last outing, there are a lot of miles in legs. Klopp takes one of two approaches. He either picks his best 11 and challenges them to go again, or he looks to freshness for freshness sake. I think he’ll take the latter approach for Watford’s visit.
To this end, Gomez comes in for the overstretched Lovren, and Origi possibly replaces a weary Bobby Firmino. Henderson and Wijnaldum have both had the odd respite, so should be trusted to stay in their berths. It’s who partners them that’s the toughest selection question to answer.
Klopp will be hugely tempted to let Naby Keita keep his place, such has been the quality of his last two outings. Keita has played twice in the past week, though, and could be deemed due a rest. If that happens then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain surely steps in to Keita’s position.
One more hurdle to jump before the respite of 10 days or so, in which Liverpool continue to play games, but not ones that will in any sense be season defining.
A recharged Liverpool, then, to grind down and obliterate Watford. The final act of the first part of a season that’s on course towards greatness.
Predicted 11: Alisson; Trent, Gomez, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Wijnaldum, Keita; Salah, Mane, Origi
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"Klopp didn't really use Origi last week."
"I think he will be primed to start on Saturday and I'd be backing him to get the first goal." 💪
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) December 12, 2019