It was hailed as “one of the biggest Champions League nights” of Jurgen Klopp’s time at Anfield, and while that may be an ever so slight exaggeration there is little doubt that Liverpool’s threadbare squad is performing well above expectations at the moment.
Their 1-0 win over Ajax, with the winner clinched by teenager Curtis Jones, secured their status as Champions League Group D winners with a game to spare and illustrated a club-wide philosophy of sheer determination and grit.
It’s a mindset that’s been moulded over the course of Klopp’s five year tenure at Anfield, and one that has finally started to pay dividends over the last couple of years.
The Red lifted the Champions League trophy for the sixth time in 2019 and went down as possibly the greatest team not to win the Premier League the same year. They went one better last season as they ended a 30 year wait for a league title in emphatic fashion, ending the campaign 18 points clear of reigning champions Manchester City.
It’s clear that Liverpool’s first team squad can stand up to any side in world football right now, but a huge crack reared its ugly head in early October.
Remember to check out the rest of our Champions League predictions for Wednesday’s fixtures.
Injuries put Liverpool to the test
First, they were utterly demolished at the hands of a ruthless Aston Villa side, losing 7-2 at Villa Park. Then came a hammer blow in the injury department as Jordan Pickford set about on a one-man mission to ensure the title didn’t remain at Anfield, with a reckless lunge sending Virgil van Dijk limping down the tunnel and facing a lengthy layoff. Pickford, for what it’s worth, went unpunished.
That was just the start of the injury problems, and Jurgen Klopp hasn’t been shy in expressing his resentment for the packed fixture list in recent weeks.
Alisson Becker is the latest in a long-line of absentees for Liverpool after picking up a hamstring issue at the weekend. He joins Trent Alexander-Arnold, Naby Keita, Joe Gomez, Xherdan Shaqiri, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Thiago Alcantara and, of course, Virgil van Dijk on the sidelines.
That’s not even mentioning the recent absences of Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah.
Admittedly, Liverpool’s attacking force on Tuesday was unaffected as they fielded the trio of Salah, Mane and Jota before bringing Firmino on for the final 20 minutes. However, their back line consisted of just one of their usual starters, with that quartet providing the last line of defence ahead of a 22-year-old goalkeeper making his debut in the Champions League.
For that reason, a clean sheet against a talented Ajax side – one that, prior to Tuesday’s defeat, had scored 38 goals in their last eight matches – is cause for celebration and it speaks volumes of the grit and determination that Klopp has instilled into the whole club.
They have had tough times this season – most recent being a draw away to Brighton on Saturday after a shock midweek loss to Atalanta – but each time they have bounced back. Each time the uninjured among the veterans and serial winners in this squad have demanded more of themselves and the bit-part youngsters, and each time they have delivered.
This latest success takes the pressure off Liverpool’s shoulders and allows them more freedom to rotate in the final group game in the build up to a frantic festive fixture calendar and, by the time the Champions League resumes in early 2021, they will likely be in much better shape injury-wise.
Can Liverpool topple Bayern Munich?
After Bayern Munich’s dominant performance in last season’s Champions League, Liverpool are now joint-third in the list of most successful clubs in European Cup / Champions League history.
With passage to the knockout round safely secured and the hope for a return to an almost full-strength squad by February, can they topple the Bavarian juggernaut to move clear of them in the rankings?
I’m not so sure.
On their day this Liverpool side can beat anyone, but this season the cracks started to show even before their injury crisis. The starting lineup that faced Aston Villa, albeit without Jordan Henderson, was almost full strength and the same can be said of the lineup at Goodison Park before van Dijk’s withdrawal.
Bayern Munich, on the other hand, had already secured the top spot in their group and could afford to rest players at Atletico Madrid on Tuesday. They still managed a 1-1 draw in Madrid, stretching their unbeaten run to 14 matches in all competitions.
This Bayern squad, transformed under Hans Flick, look utterly unstoppable at times. They have lost just one competitive game in the last year, winning an absurd 43 of their 47 outings in this time. Die Roten thrashed Chelsea, Barcelona and Lyon on route to the final last season and rarely looked out of control against PSG.
Quite frankly, it’s difficult to see anyone stopping Hansi Flick’s all-conquering Bayern side.
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