Bayern Munich have drawn Liverpool in what promises to be one of the marquee match-ups in the Champions League round of 16. Liverpool will play host to Bayern at Anfield for the first leg on February 19th of next year, and the return leg at the Allianz Arena will take place on March 13th.
We’ve teamed up with SB Nation’s Liverpool page, The Liverpool Offside to get reactions from both sides of the coin. Noel Chomyn, one of their managing editors, was kind enough to answer some questions for us to give us an insight in to how Liverpool fans are feeling about this tie.
BFW: Who do you think will be the most pivotal player for Liverpool in these two legs, and who are you guys most worried about on Bayern?
TLO: If you take out the attack and the defence, that doesn’t leave many options. Still, it’s a fair question—and I think, for me at least, it ties together the player Liverpool fans will be most worried about with the player that we’ll be missing most in the first leg. The first, then, is Robert Lewandowski. And the second is Virgil van Dijk, who’s suspended for the first leg of the Round of 16. Put them together, and Liverpool’s most important player could end up being Fabinho.
More broadly, midfield balance has been an issue at times this season, one that’s had knock-on effects for our forward line — when they’ve failed to deliver this, it’s often down to an overly conservative midfield selection behind them, one that is simply unable to give them any real support. Put rather more bluntly, the trio of Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijanldum, and James Milner has often left something to be desired when they’ve been played together.
The three of them all have their place — namely when we’re looking to physically bully an opponent, which worked against Napoli for us when it mattered most — but as a trio their press resistance and creativity is a notch below what is often required. The good news for us, though, is that Fabinho increasingly looks settled and Naby Keïta is fit again and finding his form — and in the absence of Van Dijk, Fabinho’s qualities as a defensive screen in particular during that first leg at Anfield could make or break the tie for us.
BFW: Jurgen Klopp and gegenpressing are a match made in heaven. Which tactic do you think he’ll deploy against Bayern?
TLO: In a big game, in Europe, against a side like Bayern at Anfield I think we come out pressing as hard as we ever have under Klopp. That return leg at the Allianz is going to be tough if the tie is within a goal — and nearly unwinnable if it’s level or Bayern have the edge — and so I expect we’re going to come at it like Roma and City last season, looking to put it out of reach.
With that said, Klopp has rather caught me out this season with his new approach. It’s worth noting just how high the hopes were heading into this season that with a largely unchanged side we’d get what we did last year when the team hit high gear — and that for the most part we haven’t really, not yet.
Klopp’s Liverpool has always improved in the second half, though, and it’s clear his tweaks have been made to improve our defensive solidity — as much as Virgil van Dijk has played a role in our defence getting better, he isn’t the only reason we’re the Premier League’s stingiest side — and to ensure we won’t run out of gas towards the end of the season.
So while there has been a move towards more pragmatic football at times, and while it’s possible Klopp throws a curve, a big part of our move towards pragmatism this season has been to that when we’re taking on sides that might be vulnerable to the press and the games matter most, we can still deploy that style of game. And that’s what I expect to see, particularly in the first leg.
BFW: In terms of injuries, hypothetically, do you think Liverpool could cope with losing someone like Salah and/or Van Dijk to an injury?
TLO: We’re better placed to cope with a significant injury than last season, but at the end of the day I don’t know if there’s any team that wouldn’t struggle with a comparable loss.
As important as Van Dijk is, though, if we’re talking about the defence then Liverpool aren’t just him at the back. This is a group that has improved in stages, starting all the way back in autumn of 2017 with some shape tweaks and the introduction of Andy Robertson. Then Van Dijk arrived, Alexander-Arnold earned his place, Alisson was signed, and Joe Gomez was a revelation.
Each of those moments has resulted in a better defensive side getting us to where we are today. Van Dijk is certainly the biggest, but if others step up his absence can be compensated for, at least in the short-term. Despite the emergence of Shaqiri, on the other hand, not to mention the quality of Mané and Firmino, I’m less sure we’re set up to cope without Salah. Or maybe that’s just the lingering doubts caused by last season’s final.
BFW: Lastly, what do you think the overall aggregate score will be and who will progress?
TLO: My head says it’s a coin flip of a tie. That’s what it looks like on paper. The fan in me, though, fully believes in this squad and manager. Believes that right now, despite some struggles in the autumn adjusting to an at times more pragmatic approach, this is a group that is starting to c lick—this is a side that has figured out something like an identity while the new additions are beginning to look fully integrated and increasingly important.
Despite that belief, I have no doubt it’s going to be hard. As a second seed, you don’t get the luxury of hoping for a “good” draw, and so even while some Liverpool fans hoped for a return engagement with Porto following last season’s 5-0 demolition (sorry, Porto), for most there’s been a feeling of acceptance for some time. We stumbled against Red Star, then we played well but didn’t get a result against PSG, and at that point we knew we getting a tough draw — if we made it to the knockouts.
Facing Bayern certainly won’t be easy, but our strengths should give Bayern a lot of problems — more than they might give to Barca or Juventus or even this season’s Dortmund, at least on paper. As far as the options go, that probably makes this about as good as a draw gets when you’re the second seed, and at that point it’s just about believing in the qualities of this squad and in Jürgen Klopp. But yeah. Realistically, it’s a coin flip.