Liverpool look to banish away-day blues in Champions League
Jurgen Klopp's side take on Genk on Wednesday having struggled for victories on their travels in the group stages of Europe's premier competition
Liverpool do not need to look in the trophy cabinet to see the spoils of Champions League success.
The Ballon d’Or shortlist was announced on Monday. Almost a quarter of the 30 men selected ply their trade at Anfield. Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino perhaps should have been joined by Andrew Robertson, with Scotland’s wretched results presumably counting against the left-back.
And yet Liverpool are European champions with a difference, and not merely because they have not won domestic silverware since 2012.
Last Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of their last group-stage win on the road, 2017’s 7-0 thrashing of Maribor.
Go back to 2008 and they have only won Champions League away group games in Slovenia and Hungary and since the start of last season, they have lost four times as many European group games as Premier League matches: twice at Napoli, once apiece to Paris Saint-Germain and Red Star Belgrade.
Perhaps it is an artificial figure as Liverpool have won knockout ties away at Bayern Munich and Porto last season, triumphing at Porto again, plus Manchester City, the previous year, not to mention defeating Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid in May.
And yet it is not merely a matter of statistical significance when they face Genk on Wednesday. Group E is shaping up to be a three-horse race.
Liverpool’s last away game is at Red Bull Salzburg, whose dynamic display in a 4-3 defeat at Anfield suggests a trip to Austria will be difficult. This represents their best chance of that elusive away win.
Genk may be the minnows who are only sixth in the Belgian league but they held Napoli at home three weeks ago. It also represents a warning to Liverpool.
They could welcome back Salah, key to victory against Salzburg but who missed Sunday’s draw with Manchester United, though Xherdan Shaqiri seems set to miss out again.
If Salah’s status in the side is secure, the midfield is an issue. For the second successive season, Jurgen Klopp can be accused of being too faithful to his Champions League final trio.
Last year, he tended to turn to James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Wijnaldum, the combination that began against Real Madrid, in times of need.
Now his reflex has been to revert to Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum, who faced Spurs in May but who struggled against United on Sunday.
If Liverpool deemed themselves unlucky to have lost in Naples last month, with a game that turned on a contentious late penalty, those four away defeats show an often adventurous team have been uncharacteristically cautious, registering only nine shots on target and one goal, from a Milner penalty.
They have reined themselves in, but arguably too much. They have scored nine times in two visits to Porto in the last two seasons, playing something resembling full-throttle football, without showing the same intent at an earlier stage.
Sunday represented another case of initial restraint. Liverpool were improved by each of the three second-half arrivals, in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Naby Keita.
There are alternatives to Henderson and Wijnaldum, whose heavy workloads for their countries means others have fresher legs.
In particular, there is scope for someone to offer more drive, dynamism and, potentially, goals. Liverpool have ended recent games playing 4-2-3-1. There is a case for starting this one with that shape.
That only one of their seven Ballon d’Or nominees is a midfielder shows that Klopp’s team are defined more by their attack and defence. Yet midfield is the department of the side that offers the scope for changing the gameplan and, perhaps, the group-game pattern.
Updated: October 23, 2019 08:25 AM