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Friday 24 January 2020

Pool facing first true test of pressure for this season

Embarrassingly early end to Reds’ Euro reign a real potential tonight

Divock Origi was sensational against Everton. Photo: Richard Sellers
Divock Origi was sensational against Everton. Photo: Richard Sellers

Everything has gone Liverpool's way so far this season - but they need to ensure that script does not have a sinister turn this evening.

Defeat against Red Bull Salzburg in Austria would mean the end of their defence of the Champions League and that is not a scenario they dare not contemplate.

At this moment in time, Liverpool are riding high at the top of the Premier League after a sensational unbeaten start to the season and they are still warm from the glow that their status as champions of Europe gives them.

If they were to lose against Salzburg and see their Champions League campaign end in embarrassingly early fashion, it is hard to guess what kind of impact that could have on Jurgen Klopp's side.

Last Saturday's 3-0 win at Bournemouth was another example of a team in complete control of their destiny, as Jurgen Klopp rested some of his star names and still saw his team cruise to victory and enhance their position at the top of the table.

Signs

Mohamed Salah showed signs that he could get back to his best form, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita took their chance to shine as they were given starts by Klopp and, at last, Liverpool had a clean sheet to add to their dominance.

Roberto Firmino's performance was a concern once again and I wonder what is happening with the Brazilian right now because he looks horribly out of form.

Klopp dropped him Firmino and Salah for the Merseyside derby against Everton last week and he must have been hoping to get a reaction when he put them back into his team at Bournemouth.

Well, Salah answered the call as he produced some moments of magic against Eddie Howe's side, but Fimrino was off the boil again and Klopp might be tempted to start with Divock Origi in Salzburg after his magnificent display against Everton.

The reason why I believe this could be the most significant game of Liverpool's season is they have yet to confront adversity and all of a sudden they are presented with a game that has the potential to derail them.

There were those who suggested the Premier League title race is close to being over after Manchester City's defeat against Manchester United last Saturday and while I would never subscribe to that theory in December, there is no doubt that Liverpool could now afford a couple of slip-ups in the Premier League and still be in a strong position.

That is not the story in the Champions League and the team they are up against tonight have the potential to expose the one weak spot that has been seen time and again in the Liverpool team this season.

The clean sheet at Bournemouth ended a 13-game run without a zero next to their name, with the sight of Dejan Lovren limping off a reminder that Liverpool's defensive resources are stretched heading into a hectic run of fixtures in December.

This will all be music to the ears of a Salzburg side which has proved this season that it can score goals for fun against any opposition.

Salzburg have scored 16 goals in their five Champions League games so far, with their 19-year-old superstar Erling Braut Haaland leading their charge by hitting the target eight times.

I was hugely impressed with them as an attacking force when they came from 3-0 down to draw level against Liverpool at Anfield in October, with their pace, movement and confidence in the final third giving Klopp's side real problems.

At the other end, they didn't look so good and Liverpool still found a way to find a winner through Salah even after they were rocked onto the back foot by their opponents.

The legacy from that game will be that Salzburg know they can hurt the reigning European kings and it should give them confidence heading into this game and it will also be in the back of the minds of the Liverpool defenders as they head into a match that should feature plenty of goals.

I'd be surprised if Salzburg fail to score at least two goals this evening, but I'd expect Liverpool to score a few goals of their own and in a straight scoring contest, Klopp's team has tended to come out on top. That said, this is a crunch game for Liverpool and the pressure they will feel if Salzburg score first could give them a problem as they will not want to be playing Europa League football in the first half of 2020.

I'm backing Liverpool to navigate their trip to Salzburg successfully, but I make that prediction with a little less conviction than I have done for most of their games this season.

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