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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

After 'Piztanbul', Liverpool's unpredictability needs to work in their favour against Spartak Moscow

A draw in Seville having led 3-0 means the Premier League club have not beaten decent Uefa Champions League opponents in eight-and-a-half years.

Liverpool took a 3-0 lead over Sevilla only to draw in the game in the final seconds. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Liverpool took a 3-0 lead over Sevilla only to draw in the game in the final seconds. Matthew Childs / Reuters

It was 3193 days ago. The most decorated club in the history of the most prestigious club competition were suffering their heaviest defeat in it.

Real Madrid were 4-0 down at Anfield and the Kop was cheering every touch of the local youngster Jay Spearing. If it feels another age, it is because it was. Spearing is now 28, an age when he should be at the peak of his powers, and is plying his trade in League One.

But then Liverpool had climbed to the top of Uefa’s coefficients, their results over the previous five years meaning they could be branded the best team in Europe. They looked it.

Then, with Rafa Benitez’s side threatening to win a first English title in 19 years, it would have felt improbable to suggest Liverpool would go more than eight-and-a-half years without beating remotely decent opposition in the Uefa Champions League.

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Fast forward to now. “We can beat any team in the world,” a bullish Sadio Mane said and, in Jurgen Klopp’s reign, they have a fine record against England’s best. Yet they have not defeated anyone of note in the Champions League since March 2009.

True, they did overcome Hoffenheim in a qualifier. They have won five matches against Debrecen, Ludogorets and Maribor, but eastern European minnows make for an incongruous sight in the modern Champions League.

They have not even been in the Champions League for much of that time, though that tells a tale in itself. So although Liverpool would qualify for the last 16 with a draw on Wednesday night against Spartak Moscow, in a way they do require victory.

They ought to have ended that long wait two weeks ago. Instead, they inverted perhaps the most famous game in their history by taking a 3-0 lead and drawing 3-3 against Sevilla.

The comeback at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium was promptly dubbed ‘Piztanbul,’ a reference to Istanbul in 2005.

And so to the meeting with the Muscovites. “It’s the game,” Klopp said. “All the good and bad things that have happened brought us into this situation.”

The statistics highlight the strangeness of Liverpool’s campaign. They have 13 goals in their last three Champions League games. Their total of 16 was only topped over the first five match days by Paris Saint-Germain. Roberto Firmino, with five, and Mohamed Salah (four) have figured prominently in the list of top scorers. Alberto Moreno has conjured three assists from left-back; the same Moreno was culpable for two goals in Seville, when he was substituted.

The Spaniard was part of a floundering defence and Liverpool will again be without their best centre-back, the injured Joel Matip. Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez are back after missing Saturday’s 5-1 win at Brighton, so midfielder Gini Wijnaldum is unlikely to be in a back three again.

Klopp has ruled out resting players, even with Sunday’s Merseyside derby looming. “We will not hesitate to line up our best team,” he said.

Liverpool being Liverpool, that does not bring certainty. Theirs is an entertaining brand of unpredictability. “You don’t have guarantees in life,” Klopp said. “Let’s try and see where it leads us.”

The sense of the future representing the unknown was reflected when he was asked if Philippe Coutinho will remain at Anfield for the second half of the season.

Barcelona attempted to make the Brazilian the second most expensive footballer in history in the summer, but Liverpool resisted bids worth up to £136 million (Dh670.7m). Klopp sounded unworried about interest being renewed.

“I don’t think about it,” he said. “Not one second that I thought about that. I am not unsure. I am not sure. Nobody knows what will happen in January.” Or on Wednesday night, indeed.