After a quick touch off the top of his right foot, Sadio Mané turned his body to shield the ball from Manuel Neuer at the top of the box. After another touch and another turn into open space, the Senegalese winger chipped the ball over a defender and into the back of the net to put Liverpool ahead. The Reds never looked back as they won 3-1 against Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, and advanced to the quarterfinals for the second straight year.
Jürgen Klopp and company will meet a familiar foe in the quarterfinals. Last season, Liverpool travelled to Estádio do Dragão for the first leg of the round of 16 and departed the stadium with a commanding five-goal advantage. The second leg was drawn 0-0, but the damage was already done. Now they face Porto yet again in the Champions League, this time with a spot in the semifinals on the line.
Player availability could play a large part in this tie. The devastating news of left-back Alex Telles’ potentially long-term injury might not only harm Porto’s chase for the Primeira Liga title but could also spell doom for the club in the Champions League. Porto will also be without veteran centre-back Pepe as well as their captain Héctor Herrera due to suspension. Liverpool on the other hand have had promising fitness news in recent weeks with the possible return of Joe Gomez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
If Liverpool’s prolific front three are in form come the first leg, they shouldn’t have much trouble creating chances against a limping defense.
As Liverpool’s attack is likely to thrive, the performances of the Liverpool midfield and back line must be sufficient as well. Centre-back Virgil van Dijk not only severely limited Robert Lewandowski’s contribution in the round of 16 but also scored and assisted in the second leg. The Dutchman has undoubtedly been the Reds’ best player this season and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Both full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have also made improvements over the course of the past couple months, including impressively tallying three and two assists correspondingly in a recent 5-0 win against Watford. Their ability to push forward in attack and track back defensively will be highly beneficial against Porto’s likely more defensive approach.
In the midfield, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum have been bright spots in an otherwise somewhat inconsistent position pool. Naby Keïta has had a disappointing first season at his new club compared to his expectations, though it hasn’t entirely been his fault. Seemingly, Klopp’s preferred midfield three are Jordan Henderson, Wijnaldum, and James Milner as of late. However, with Liverpool playing Chelsea at Anfield between the two quarterfinal matches, player selection in this area – playing someone who can proctor the possession game – will be important with the Premier League title race also nearing its climax.
This Champions League season has become one of the most unpredictable to date. Ajax, Porto, and Manchester United all had historic comebacks in the round of 16 against Real Madrid, Roma, and Paris Saint-Germain respectively. Liverpool may have drawn what was considered by most to be the easiest opponent, but if this season has taught us anything, it is that complacency breeds an upset.
By: William Sinsky