If Jurgen Klopp could have had a more familiar opponent, it would still be Bayern Munich. If the Bavarian giants could have had a more formidable opposition in the first knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League, it would still be Liverpool. The Round of 16 encounter between the second-placed sides in the English Premier League and the Bundesliga has not only thrown up an intriguing clash between two of Europe’s most exciting managers but also has an added subplot due to Klopp’s history with the German club.
That Klopp’s time at Borussia Dortmund when he ended the unanimous hold of Bayern Munich over the Bundesliga put him on the footballing map is a barely concealed fact, but his association with Uli Hoeness’ club dates back during Klopp’s reign at Mainz when the ever-astounding manager was repeatedly linked with a high-profile job at the Allianz Arena.
Years have passed since then with noteworthy moments transpiring between Bayern Munich and their arch nemesis – from Borussia Dortmund’s consecutive league triumphs to Bayern’s memorable and emotional UEFA Champions League victory over their German counterpart. Yet when Klopp leads his side on to face Niko Kovac’s Bayern Munich at Anfield on Tuesday evening, it would be a tussle between two legendary clubs with completely different current graphs.
While Liverpool came close by whiskers to securing the UEFA Champions League last season, they are arguably the favourites to clinch the Premiership this season. Jurgen Klopp’s project on Merseyside has done wonders for the once-flagging English giants as they hope to create history on both English and European fronts. Their opponents, on the contrary, are in course to rediscover their mojo as they trudge through a difficult season under a new manager.
“They are still a force, nothing else. There is no obvious problem. For me, the way I have to see it, it makes them more dangerous,” Klopp opined about Bayern Munich’s current situation before adding, “They had Guardiola, one of the most demanding managers in the world, and they played fantastic football and won the league three times. Then Ancelotti, who now does a brilliant job at Naples, and it didn’t work out. So they bring Heynckes back, he manages all the trouble and settles it down to be successful again. Now they have to change it completely with a new manager, a few very experienced players injured and some young players coming up. That’s not a struggle. That’s a normal adaptation to the situation.”
Niko Kovac has brought his own counter-attacking element into the Bayern set-up but has not essentially changed the core playing style of the Bavarian giants and it is this concoction which has led to unfavourable results at times this season. Bayern have struggled spectacularly on the defensive aspect this season, prone to casual errors in their own half – a trait which will play into Liverpool’s hands for Klopp’s team lives by their manager’s gegenpressing system.
Liverpool, meanwhile, have solidified their defence, having kept 14 clean sheets in the league this season and conceding only 15 goals so far. The suspended Virgil van Dijk will be sorely missed by the Kopites, while Dejan Lovren continues to struggle with his fitness. Bayern are excellent in set-piece situations, scoring the most number of goals from set-pieces out of any European side in the UEFA Champions League this season and a makeshift Liverpool ‘back-four’ will only even the contest further.
Fabinho is expected to lineup alongside Joel Matip in the heart of the Liverpool defence, while the rest of the side picks itself. Roberto Firmino is likely to recover from his illness by the time kick-off rolls on and whether the Brazilian leads the line will prove to be crucial in Liverpool’s offensive approach, especially as they aim to take advantage of Bayern’s struggling backline of Joshua Kimmich, Niklas Sule, Mats Hummels and David Alaba.
Van Dijk’s absence does make things easier for Robert Lewandowski but Thomas Muller’s suspension, in light of Arjen Robben’s injury, hurts Bayern tremendously, more so because James Rodriguez has stuttered on most big occasions in the recent past.
Statistics and history are in Liverpool’s favour as well, firmly cementing Bayern’s status as the bonafide underdogs in the first leg, for Liverpool has not lost to German opponents in nineteen previous occasions at the Anfield, winning sixteen of those. Moreover, Liverpool are unbeaten in their last 19 European home games as well, an envious proposition for a club which is yet to affirm its status as a modern great by winning consequential trophies.
“I don't know if there is a favourite or not. Liverpool has respect for us as we do for them and there will be a sporting contest tomorrow. I want to say once again, we are playing against an opponent where it is the most difficult draw,” Kovac told reporters in his pre-match press conference, his candid admission relieving a bit of pressure from his side which has come under quite the scanner this season, along with his tactical nous.
Following Dortmund’s epic downfall at the Wembley, Bayern Munich remain Germany’s last hope in the knock-outs of Europe’s premier competition, but while the visitors would be eager to avert a disaster, Liverpool are hungry for more than simply a victory, for Klopp announced, “The story so far is a nice one, but it’s not finished yet.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 15:29:39 IST