The Champions League has gone under the radar for Liverpool fans this season, until now.
The semi-finals beckon, with Barcelona lying in wait. Beyond that, Ajax, Manchester City or Spurs are potential opponents on June 1stin Madrid.
The Reds go to Porto tonight, ahead by two goals and bolstered by an Anfield clean sheet. It’s almost inconceivable that they don’t make the last four but there’s still some work to do.
If complacency were an issue we just need to remind ourselves that the group stage brought three away defeats in Naples, Belgrade and Paris. Each of those somewhat insipid showings suggested a dual challenge at home and in Europe might be a bridge too far.
Then, however there was that outrageous triumph in Munich, a performance rich in quality to convince all and sundry that Jurgen Klopp’s team are prioritizing nothing.
And rightly so because although that almost mythical domestic league title means the world to everyone, the impact of a sixth European Cup for Liverpool FC is arguably greater. 1990 is a long time ago but so too is 2005 and we need the connectivity of another continental crowning as much as we long to see a nineteenth league title knitted to those that that went before.
For Porto, this tie has been about pride and redemption.
To an extent they achieved that at Anfield by keeping the contest alive. But, it is in the Estadio Do Dragao where their demons truly lie after last season’s humiliation by a rampant Liverpool. Qualification would be nirvana for Porto but in reality, just competing with the Reds in front of their own fans after last year’s humbling would suffice.
Porto are also embroiled in a battle with Benfica at the top of the Portuguese Primeira Liga; neck and neck on 72 points, so they too have other fish to fry.
As much as they are massive underdogs to eliminate Liverpool, this return leg represents a free hit for Sergio Conceicao’s men. Their mentality will be focused on scoring the first goal, whipping the crowd into a frenzy and testing Liverpool’s resolve. Balancing that need to come forward is the fear of a Liverpool away goal, which effectively ends the tie, and there’s enough memory in the bank of the Reds on the counter to dilute their attacking zeal.
Jurgen Klopp has a few posers to contemplate in terms of selection.
Does he give one of his front three a rest and get some minutes into Divock Origi or Daniel Sturridge, or just go with Salah, Mane and Firmino from the start as per? My money’s on the latter in an attempt to lay the tie to rest and spare the whole side a taxing 90 minutes.
Jordan Henderson’s ankle knock sustained against Chelsea probably rules him out so Naby Keita will be retained and Gini Wijnaldum should start after two games on the bench.
Wijnaldum’s cameo at the weekend suggests the break has done him the world of good. It’s easy to forget that until a month ago, Wijnaldum had been Klopp’s most consistent performer during a long campaign and he undoubtedly stakes a strong claim to be in the manager’s “best eleven”.
At the back, Dejan Lovren – after a brief recall – has again fallen victim to a dose of the lurgy. Lovren’s sickness record makes Joel Matip look positively robust, and if Klopp’s usual meritocracy plays out then Matip remains second in command to Virgil Van Dijk. After missing the first leg, Andy Robertson will be back to provide all of his Glaswegian fire and brimstone.
Regardless of Klopp’s preferred selection, Liverpool really should go through.
No-one wants to tempt fate but statistically two-nil first legs are rarely overturned. Incentive and professionalism ought be enough to ward off any lackadaisical approach.
In the minds of the players, Kiev will still hurt and the prospect of another shot at Europe’s greatest prize must spur the Reds on to the Camp Nou where Lionel Messi awaits.
*Odds are subject to change