As the second phase of Champions League Round of 16 ties got underway this week, two of the competitions most successful sides met at Anfield on Tuesday when Liverpool hosted fellow five time winners Bayern Munich. Given Liverpool’s Premier League form and near success in Europe’s premier competition last season; it was largely felt that Jürgen Klopp’s men would sweep past an apparently ‘aging’ Bayern side that currently trails Borussia Dortmund by three points in the Bundesliga.
Instead Niko Kovac and his charges produced a disciplined display that saw their full-backs sitting deep denying the space in behind that usually brings Liverpool’s attacking play to life. It may not have been especially pretty but it was, for the most, part effective.
Although understandably frustrated at being held scoreless, Liverpool’s manager, a veteran of some pulsating clashes against Bayern in the recent past, was upbeat about his side’s chances in the second leg, and rightly so.
While Bayern came and did a job where so many have found themselves torn apart, they cannot afford to be so deliberately cautious in the return game, where the home crowd will expect them to do what they usually do: win and prevent the opposition from scoring. So far this season only Ajax and four Bundesliga teams have managed both to score at the Allianz Arena and prevent Bayern from winning. If Liverpool do so in three weeks’ time they will progress to the next round and Bayern will pay the price for not showing enough ambition to test a rear-guard missing Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren.
Perhaps the one niggling doubt for Klopp and his squad might be their performances away from fortress Anfield in the Champions League thus far having lost at Roma in last season’s semi-final, and in Naples, Belgrade and Paris this time around.
The Bayern game marked the start of , if not pivotal, then certainly a massively important week which will also see them travel to Old Trafford on Sunday. The impact that Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has made during his still supposedly ‘interim’ tenure at Manchester United means that many are suggesting that this game will now be a true test of Liverpool’s title credentials.
Certainly United go into the game with, in the words of Ashely Young, “massive belief” not having lost a domestic fixture since the Norwegian took the reins; yet other than the 1-0 victory over Tottenham the rest of those games have been against the also rans of the Premier League. Victories away at Arsenal and then Chelsea in the FA Cup may have been notable but neither of those two supposed rivals for fourth place is looking massively convincing of anything at the moment.
Klopp’s men represent a much more significant challenge even than the PSG team, shorn of Neymar and Cavani, who pulled them apart just last week, and will see the trip down the M62 as an opportunity to shake off the indifferent form that has seen them relinquish a seven point lead since the turn of the year and then held to that goalless draw by Bayern Munich.
Manchester City fans, fresh from watching their side come back from 2-1 down to win away against Schalke in their Champions League tie, will of course be facing something of a dilemma ahead of their League Cup Final engagement with Chelsea; as a result for their cross-city rivals would shift the momentum of the title race, a little bit further back towards their team. Having to go to Old Trafford themselves on a yet to be determined date, they will hope to have a bit more breathing space by then.
Those of us of a Gooner persuasion, of course, can only follow the Champions League and title race at an envious distance; however having made a complete mess of the first leg over in Belarus tonight’s tea time kick-off for the second leg against BATE does, if nothing else, offer a meaningful fixture. It also sparks a run of games for Unai Emery’s men that could very much define how the Basque’s first season will be regarded.
Currently only a point off fourth place the Gunners are still very much in the hunt for a potential return to the Champions League gravy train, but with a trip to Wembley for the North London Derby and then the visit of Manchester United in the next fortnight, it could very much be the case that the club’s ambitions(sic) may have to switch to the Europa League. However assuming Chelsea have enough to see off Malmo this evening, could that competition come down to a straight shootout between the two London clubs? No doubt Napoli, Inter, Benfica and Emery’s former club Sevilla will all fancy themselves having at least a say in who wins it, but stranger things have happened!