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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Liverpool v PSG: which sharpshooting Fab Three will be the last men standing?

Ian Hawkey looks at the strengths of PSG's attacking trident of Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani and how they measure up to Liverpool's troika of Salah, Firmino and Mane

Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe, centre, is congratulated by Neymar, right, and Edinson Cavani after scoring a goal in the 3-1 win over Angers in August. AFP
Paris Saint-Germain's Kylian Mbappe, centre, is congratulated by Neymar, right, and Edinson Cavani after scoring a goal in the 3-1 win over Angers in August. AFP

In the group phase of last season’s Uefa Champions League, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain scored 48 goals between them, both way ahead of the next most potent team. Hardly a better way, then, to raise the curtain on the new European Cup campaign than with a meeting of these sharpshooters at Anfield.

PSG expect to line up their three magnificent musketeers, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, who struck 17 goals between them in eight European games last season. Although Liverpool have a concern for Tuesday over Roberto Firmino, after he sustained an eye injury in the win at Tottenham Hotspur, it is via the dovetailing of his trio of first-choice strikers that manager Jurgen Klopp hopes can push his team to one better than last May’s silver medal in club football’s most prestigious competition. Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have established a strong claim as the most effective front trio anywhere: Between them, 32 goals in 15 Champions League matches last season, an evenly-shared 10 each if you discount the pre-qualifying round.

Across competitions, Salah, the sensation of the English season following his move from Roma to Merseyside, took the greater share, and the most plaudits, including the Premier League's Footballer of the Year award. Salah scored 44 goals in his first campaign with Liverpool, this from a 25 year old who had never managed 20 in any previous season; that he finds himself more closely policed as a result of his success is inevitable. The marking was brutal in the European Cup final in Kiev, where a shoulder injury, sustained after a rugged challenge by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, curtailed his participation early, with a dispiriting effect on Liverpool.

Mohamed Salah has found himself more tightly policed following last season's goalscoring exploits. Reuters
Mohamed Salah has found himself more tightly policed following last season's goalscoring exploits. Reuters

Will tightened marking of Salah mean Liverpool's goals are shared out more? Perhaps. He acknowledged the role of his allies, Firmino and Mane most prominent, in his astonishingly productive year, of Firmino’s industry and intuitive use of space, of Mane's speed, particularly on the counter-attack. But just lately, there have been signs of the odd fissure in the smooth co-habitation of this Fab Three. Witness Klopp’s irritation as an otherwise commanding performance, 2-1 against Spurs turned nervous in the later stages, during which both Salah and Mane opted to shoot when a teammate looked better placed for a pass and a scoring opportunity.

It was put to Klopp those episodes might be interpreted as symptoms of greed. The German answered: “It’s not greed. I want them to score and encourage them to. But there are moments when it’s better to pass.”

Sadio Mane, centre, and Roberto Firmino make up one of the most feared attacking triumvirates in Europena football alongside Mohamed Salah. Reuters
Sadio Mane, centre, and Roberto Firmino make up one of the most feared attacking triumvirates in Europena football alongside Mohamed Salah. Reuters

Finding the equilibrium is delicate. The most fabled striking partnerships have struggled with it. The so-called "BBC", the trio of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo - two surnames and a branded first-name making up the acronym - that propelled Real Madrid to four Champions League triumphs in the past five years always had a restless tension behind it.

Bale expressed his discomfort with what he perceived as a secondary role within minutes of his two-goal heroics in Madrid’s 3-1 victory in the final in May. The BBC were together, at least around Bale’s spells with injury, for five years but are no longer, Ronaldo building new partnerships with an eye, as ever, on his personal podiums at Juventus.

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Comparing the Fab Threes:

Neymar, Mbappe and Cavani

Neymar, from Barcelona, and Kylian Mbappe, from Monaco, joined Paris Saint-Germain last summer. Cavani was already there, reigning Ligue 1 Player of the Year, having struck an extraordinary 49 goals in 2016/17.

Cavani generally takes up a central role, often the target for Mbappe’s crosses and Neymar’s passes, as they attack from wider positions. They also benefit from the Uruguayan dragging markers towards him. Last season, they trio scored five goals between them in a 7-1 walloping of Celtic, the fourth goal set up by a Neymar free kick, a clever Cavani flick and Mbappe’s finish.

Salah, Mane and Firmino

Firmino was signed from Hoffenheim in 2015. Twelve months later, Mane arrived from Southampton, and last summer Mohamed Salah joined from Roma.

Essentially, Mane and Salah flank Firmino. But fluid movement is the key, with the busy Firmino often deeper than an orthodox No 9, while Salah and Mane, both exceptionally fast, spearhead counter-attacks.

Liverpool’s blitz of Manchester City in the 2017/18 Uefa Champions League featured Firmino and Salah combining for the opening goal, and Firmino feeding the ball to Salah who crossed for Mane to head the third. Firmino and Salah scored in the second leg for a 5-1 aggregate.

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Ronaldo will always be an acquisitive striker, with a sense of entitlement. At Barcelona, when Neymar and Luis Suarez joined up with Lionel Messi, their gifted trident used to make a show of their unselfishness so at times it almost looked as if they were advertising their generosity and bonhomie in order to define themselves as different from Madrid's CR7-dominated BBC. Then Neymar left, his entourage letting it be known he needed to be the main man somewhere, which meant playing somewhere where Messi was not.

Since Neymar became the world’s costliest player, PSG paying his buyout clause of €222 million (Dh951m), there have been issues of complicity. It is not because Neymar and Edinson Cavani, now in his sixth prolific season in Paris, do not suit one another as footballers; they do. Neymar’s dribbling and Cavani’s penalty box nous are a devilish package. But there were disputes last autumn, played out publicly, over which of them has the right to take penalties.

PSG’s new manager, Thomas Tuchel, is vigilant of any signs of a reoccurance of those squabbles, and also of development of Mbappe, the junior musketeer last season, now a World Cup holder. Mbappe’s power and pace, like Salah’s for Liverpool, may emerge as the most potent weapon PSG have. The task for the warrior Cavani, and for the ambitious Neymar, is to exploit it, never to envy it.

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Read more:

Thomas Tuchel: PSG cannot wait to take on Liverpool in Uefa Champions League

Comment: A date with Inter Milan in the Champions League conjures magical memories for Spurs

Tottenham v Liverpool takeaways: Jurgen Klopp's men emerge as genuine title contenders

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