Liverpool have a mountain to climb in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League semi-final against Barcelona next Tuesday after a 3-0 defeat in the Nou Camp last night.
Before then, of course, the Reds travel to St. James’ Park to face Newcastle United and there was plenty of encouragement for owners of Liverpool assets heading into Gameweek 37 despite the scoreline.
There is much to discuss in our Scout Notes article below, including a dissection of Jurgen Klopp’s surprise team selection.
Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp explained his decision not to start Roberto Firmino (£9.4m) in last night’s match in Catalonia.
The Brazilian striker had missed Friday’s 5-0 win over Huddersfield Town with a groin injury and was only among the substitutes against Barcelona, coming on for the final 11 minutes.
Speaking ahead of kick-off, Klopp said:
Bobby wants to [play] and the medical department told me ‘yes, it’s good’ but then you have to make sure. I’m not sure if 90 minutes or whatever.
So he doesn’t have to start, that’s why we start like we start. Bobby is on the bench, that’s good news.
For the 17.5% of Fantasy Premier League managers who still own Firmino, it was perhaps the best possible outcome: the Brazil international being declared fit enough to be involved in the match-day squad but ultimately kept fresh for Saturday’s trip to Tyneside.
The hope for owners now is that any residual fear about Firmino’s groin strain will have evaporated by the time Liverpool run out at St. James’ Park – so Klopp’s pre-match press conference on Friday will be of much interest.
There was also a welcome boost for Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s (£5.7m) owners last night.
The return of Joe Gomez (£4.8m) was always seen as a threat to the England right-back’s security of starts, with the concern being that Gomez would be handed a run-out in the Premier League at the expense of the 23.3%-owned Alexander-Arnold.
Gomez was thrown into the lion’s den at Barcelona instead, however, surely meaning that Alexander-Arnold will return to the starting XI in Gameweek 37 – especially as Gomez was visibly flagging in the closing stages of Wednesday’s match.
Interviewed ahead of kick-off, Klopp said:
For Trent it’s good, he can refresh a little bit, there are important games to come. But the first thing we wanted to make was a good line-up for tonight and for a good line-up you need legs and that’s what we tried to make sure.
It was clear when Joe would be available again that there would be a game and I think today it makes absolute sense in that position.
The release of the Liverpool teamsheet raised eyebrows, with questions asked over who would deputise in Firmino’s absence given that Divock Origi (£5.0m) and Xherdan Shaqiri (£6.8m) were also among the substitutes and Daniel Sturridge (£5.6m) was not part of the 18-man squad.
That man turned out to be Georginio Wijnaldum (£5.5m), playing as a “false nine” with fairly unspectacular results.
Rotation has been commonplace in the middle of the park lately and Klopp burned through five central midfielders last night, with Wijnaldum up top, Naby Keita (£7.1m) limping off midway through the first half and substitute Jordan Henderson (£5.3m) coming on to replace his injured team-mate after 24 minutes.
The severity of Keita’s injury is yet to be determined.
Who gets the nod in the engine room on Saturday remains to be seen, with Klopp saying ahead of kick-off:
The boys are all in good shape. (But) Hendo played five games in a row, for example, and we play on Saturday and Tuesday.
Millie didn’t play for two games so it was clear we had to use him. Fabinho didn’t play for two games so it was clear we had to use him. Naby didn’t have that many games during the whole season, Gini didn’t play all the games.
That’s why midfield, where it’s really intense, is where we have to make sure we have legs there.
There were some stand-out performances among the players that did play, with Joel Matip’s (£4.9m) display much better than the scoreline suggests and Andrew Robertson (£6.8m) excelling at both ends of the pitch.
Sadio Mane (£10.2m) and Mohamed Salah (£13.3m) posed plenty of threat, too, each registering four shots – no-one on show attempted more.
While their usual accuracy in front of goal was missing last night, the fact that the premium midfield pair were presented with eight chances between them away at Barcelona was encouraging to see heading into Gameweek 37.
Salah was electric for much of the evening, if a little wasteful in possession – the Egyptian’s pass completion rate being the lowest of all 14 Liverpool players that took to the field.
FPL’s leading points-scorer forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen into a smart low save early in the second half before spurning the chance to bag what could have been a vital goal late on, smashing the woodwork from close range after Firmino’s initial effort had been cleared off the line.
Mane, too, had a glorious chance to bag an away goal, spooning over from 12 yards on 35 minutes with only ter Stegen to beat.
The assist for that chance came from Henderson, who was once again used in a more advanced role on the right of midfield.
James Milner (£5.6m) also had two presentable opportunities that were saved by the Barcelona goalkeeper as Liverpool not only shaded goalscoring chances but also possession – not something many teams can say when they visit the Nou Camp.
Reflecting on his side’s positive display, Klopp said:
I think it was the best away game in the Champions League, not only this year, last year included. Against a side like this, playing this kind of football I was completely happy. We played between the lines, we didn’t play through, we were in the box, we had really good chances and caused them a lot of problems – that’s good.
The Champions League is now like this: if you lose away it’s not a massive problem, it can happen, as long as you score a goal. That’s the problem tonight, we didn’t score that goal, so that makes our life now not easy, to be honest. But from my point of view, my boys gained a lot of respect again for the way they played, how they developed.
Asked what impressed him most about Liverpool’s performance, Klopp added:
How we defended it, how brave we were in these situations, I liked it. When we had the ball, we were not always brilliant but we were pretty much always really good. We played, we controlled the game in moments, we let them run, we had to defend, we created – not chances constantly because that’s not possible, but moments with a chance to make a proper chance of it. That’s good and that’s what you have to do, you have to create by yourself and that’s what we did.
In the end, nobody is really interested – probably only football nerds will think about it – because it was about the result and we lost 3-0. I can work really well with this game, I will use this game to show the boys what is possible. It was a brave performance that was very passionate, very lively and in a lot of moments creative and direct.
Liverpool bossed the game for periods of the second half to such an extent that Ernesto Valverde changed shape to a 4-4-2 and sacrificed Philippe Coutinho, with even Lionel Messi not as influential as he usually is.
It is difficult to subdue the Argentinean playmaker for 90 minutes, though, and while his first goal owed much to a slice of luck – Messi following in after Luis Suarez’s shot had hit the bar – his second and Barcelona’s crucial third goal, a sensational free-kick from distance, underscored his ability to turn a game in an instant.
A flat-footed Virgil van Dijk (£6.7m) could perhaps have done better for Barcelona’s first two goals but a much easier test will await the Dutchman and the Liverpool defence on Saturday evening, with Rafael Benitez’s side likely to be adopting a backs-to-the-wall, 5-4-1 approach on Tyneside.
Liverpool XI (4-3-3): Alisson, Gomez, Matip, van Dijk, Robertson, Milner (Origi 85′), Fabinho, Keita (Henderson 24′), Wijnaldum (Firmino 79′), Salah, Mané.