On Tuesday night, at the Otkrytiye Arena, Liverpool come up against one of the top seeds from their Champions League group. Normally, this means a tie against one of the elites of Europe. For Liverpool, however, this means a trip to Russia to play against a relative unknown in comparison to the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and Bayern Munich.
A team in trouble
Last year’s Russian Premier League winners, Spartak are currently struggling in the league. They sit sixth, ten points behind the leaders Zenit St Petersberg who also have a game in hand. Eleven games into the season, they will struggle to mount a realistic title challenge. They have only won three league games this season, drawing five. This is not good enough for a team of their size and has seen pressure mount on Italian manager Massimo Carrera.
All three of their wins have come at the Otkrytiye Arena. Spartak may be struggling, but at home, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Two weeks ago, in the Champions League first round, they only managed a draw against Slovenian minnows Maribor. The pressure will be firmly on them on Tuesday night, as a loss to Liverpool would make qualification difficult for them to achieve.
Spartak tend to set up in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation this season. They play with one main forward, but their principal attacking threat often comes from the players behind the front man. Two holding midfielders tend to sit in front of their back four. Their formation is very similar to the one Jürgen Klopp used to good effect in his first season with Liverpool. Therefore, the Reds manager will be very aware of the benefits and problems that can arise from using it.
Liverpool supporters know the name Quincy Promes, after the multiple links to the attacking midfielder twelve months ago. With the news that Promes is unlikely to feature, a lot of Spartak’s attacking threat has been blunted. He has scored six goals so far this season and contributed three assists. In a team that in total has only scored sixteen as a wole, they are going to be missing the player who has contributed to more than 50% of their goals.
The majority of their attacking threat will, therefore, come from Luis Adriano; another familiar name from years gone by. Adriano is a good all-around forward who has the ability to hurt teams with his intelligent runs off the ball. He has three goals this season to his name. With midfielder Mario Pasalic as the only other player to have scored more than a single goal this season, keeping Adriano quiet will be key for Liverpool.
Spartak like to attack by playing through the channels. They will play balls between the full-backs and centre-backs, or over the top of the defence. If Liverpool sits a little deeper, as they did against Arsenal, they will limit their ability to hurt them. Without the attacking creativity of Promes, it is not clear who will be able to step up and produce a piece of magic if Liverpool can remain focused in defence.
Can Liverpool get at them?
In reality, a team containing Mohammed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and the returning Sadio Mané can attack anyone successfully. Spartak’s defence is not weak, but they are vulnerable from out wide, just where Liverpool are strongest.
The Russians like to play a possession-based game and control play in the opposition half. As they do this, they bring their defenders forward, opening them up to counter-attacks. For this reason, Liverpool may well be best off letting them have the majority of the ball. Klopp has demonstrated his ability to vary his side’s pressing game, and by starting the press fifteen metres further back, he may well create space in which to spring Liverpool’s attacking forwards.
Spartak’s draw against Maribor has increased the pressure on the team to get a result on Tuesday night. Liverpool go into this game knowing that a draw would not necessarily be a negative result, but a win would almost certainly cripple their opponents’ hopes of qualification.
This may well influence the way that Klopp sets up his side. Mané is expected to come directly back into the team. His and Salah’s pace from out wide will be vital, but the question will be on the role of Coutinho. If he starts as a central midfielder it will say much about Klopp’s intentions for the game. Whether the Brazilian plays or not, it is hard to imagine, with the attacking threats Liverpool possess, that they won’t score goals.
What will dictate the game is how Liverpool defend. If they can play well at the back, they have the opportunity on Tuesday night to put themselves in an excellent position to still be playing Champions League football into 2018.
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