A lot of people don’t start following Champions League until the group stage gets going in mid-September, which is all well and good since it means more soccer for you and me, but for the fourth place EPL finisher – Liverpool selfishly stole Arsenal’s girl this year – there is often no more critical game(s) all season than the home-and-home “playoff” series to decide whether they make it to the big dance (and all the riches that it entails) or instead have to look forward to cold and blustery Spursday evenings in Bratislava and Donetsk for the next few months.
Thus, the importance of advancing can’t be overstated and opponents at this stage can sometimes be underestimated. Just last year saw Porto and Roma face off in the playoff round (the Portuguese side eventually progressed), which very easily could have been a group stage matchup.
Nevertheless, losing in this round for an EPL club would be traveshamockerous. Just think about it. All the blood, sweat and tears last spring to grab fourth place will have been for absolutely nothing. Sad! And unfortunately anybody who watched Liverpool’s defensive “effort” against Watford on Saturday will realize it is not out of the realm of plausibility.
So yeah, I think it’s fair to say this is a big two-game stretch for the Reds.
But before we get to that, it has been far too long since we’ve treated ourselves to the majestic melodies of the most bonerific song ever composed (this side of the Star-Spangled Banner):
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE – “PLAYOFF”
Hoffenheim will feel like familiar environs for several of the visitors, notably Roberto Firmino (who spent five seasons there before being bought by Liverpool) and Herr Klopp from his (good old?) days at Dortmund. Alas, the side will be without several key guys in Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne and the ghost of Daniel Sturridge. Oh, right, and Philippe Coutinho’s trick back flared up again.
As for Hoffenheim, I just read an interesting story about their manager, who took over in 2016 when the club was in dire straits and not only saved it from relegation that year but then turned around and guided them to fourth place in the Bundesliga last season – and dude hasn’t even hit puberty yet. Seriously, he’s like the Doogie Howser M.D. of jogo bonito.
Hoffenheim did lose two of their best players over the summer as Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy were both hoovered up by – take a guess, you’ll never get it – Bayern Munich, who at this point are basically the feudal lord from Braveheart that swoops in and takes newly wedded brides to do as he pleases with them… they take whoever they want from other German clubs, whenever they want them. (Honestly, how many times has a player agreed to join Bayern – in FEBRUARY – and then played the rest of the season for one club knowing they’ll be at Bayern in the summer. Talk about bananaland.)
But I digress. Hoffenheim have a recognizable (and competent) group of attackers with big bad Sandro Wagner up top complemented by Serge Gnabry (Arsenal youngster sold to Bayern then loaned to The Hoff) and another former Gooner in Andrej Kramaric. Annnnnnnnnnnnd they are not so bad at home… having lost a grand total of ZERO games there all last season. (Is that good?)
Underestimating the Hoff would be a big mistake, but unfortunately for Ze Germans you can’t help but think that Klopp is the ideal manager to prepare an opponent for a game like this. Seems unlikely that he has been handing out too many hugs over the last couple of days, and while ditching the zonal marking strategy that has been killing them on set pieces would make the team 75% better just like that, he better at least have lit a fire under defenders’ asses to stop standing around with their puds in their hands and attack the godamn ball.
It is a cliché to say that defense is about ‘wanting it more’ because usually goals happen because of mental or physical errors (or Messi being Messi), but in the case of Liverpool it legitimately has boiled down to needing to want it more.
Sadio Mane and Firmino and Mo Salah (and perhaps Origi) will get chances, and one thing Salah has proven is if you give him 15 open looks at net he is bound to put at least one away. So the big question is for the Reds’ backline: do you ‘want it’ bad enough?
Not gonna lie, draw looks pretty attractive since the Reds would surely he satisfied taking that back to Anfield, buttttttt I’m gonna put a little faith in Klopp’s motivational skills. Liverpool to win 2-1.
Other UCL games worth watching (tomorrow):
• Huge game for Celtic [-270] at home against Astana [+750]. Does this look like the face of a guy who’s nervous about facing the Kazakhstani champions?
I think not. Celtic to win 2-0.
• Napoli [-270] are huge favorites as they welcome Nice [+1045] to Italy. This would be a lot more exciting/interesting if the Frenchies weren’t missing Mario Balotelli and Wesley Sneijder. Alas, they are. Napoli to win 3-1.
Also got Ronud 2 of the Spanish Super Cup featuring Real Madrid up 3-1 heading back home to face Paulinho and his merry band of Barcelonans.
My, my how the mighty have fallen.
Anyway, lots more soccer on deck this weekend as well. Stay woke blud fam.