The last time Liverpool were in the Champions League, they were drawn against another hitherto unknown team in Ludogorets. Those two games, and the dropped points which came with them, played a huge part in the Reds’ failure to reach the next round. It is vital that they secure the required three points against Maribor on Tuesday night.
Although Maribor do not carry as much prestige as others in England, their coach Darko Milanič will be a familiar face for some. Milanič had the misfortune of managing Leeds for a grand total of 32 Days and six matches in 2014. Whether that time in England will have given him any insights into how to beat English teams, is unknown, but he did not manage to win a single game whilst in charge of Leeds.
A Team Riding High
Maribor currently sit second in the Slovenian PrvaLiga, unbeaten and only two points behind the league leaders Olimpija NK. Already nine points ahead of the third-place side, it looks like it is going to be a two-horse race for the title. Maribor’s biggest problem so far has been their profligacy in front of goal. In all four of their draws this season, they have failed to score, and this has cost them vital points.
In Europe, their run so far has been something of a fairytale, very much helped by the luck of the draw. Whereas Liverpool was forced to pass through Hoffenheim to get to the group stage, the teams Maribor came up across were Zrinjski Mostar, Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar, and Hapoel Be’er-Sheva. Although their run to the group stage wasn’t the most difficult, their dogged draw earned against Spartak Moscow shows that they can mix it with the big boys. All the same, the ease in which Sevilla took them apart shows that a game against Liverpool should not produce an upset.
The formation that Maribor use will tell a lot about their intentions for the match. They generally utilise a 4-2-3-1 very much in the vein of Liverpool under Klopp in 2016. However, they went for a more pragmatic 4-4-1-1 against Spartak Moscow to stifle the attacking play of the Russian side.
Interestingly, when playing away at Sevilla, they risked a more attacking formation, but it backfired. Sevilla scored in the 27th minute and picked off their opponents with ease, as they had to push even further forward. Against Liverpool, a more pragmatic approach, trying to hold out and then snatch a winner, is much more likely.
Can they Hurt Liverpool?
Too often, Liverpool’s biggest weakness has been themselves. Too many of the goals they have conceded this year have been down to sloppy play, especially as games progress and they push for goals.
If Maribor can weather the storm, they do have players of quality going forward who can do damage. The captain and talisman of the team for the last seven years is the Brazilian striker Marcos Tavares. Now at 33 years of age, his potency is waning. He is no longer the exciting forward who was capped by Brazil up until under-20 level, but he is a good finisher and will force the Liverpool centre-backs to work to block his clever work off the ball.
Equally, Liverpool will have to work to control the younger but equally talented Damjan Bohar. Bohar scored Maribor’s goal Against Spartak Moscow and will offer problems for the Liverpool defence. He brings the ball forward and runs at players, providing the catalyst for his side on the counter-attack.
The final player who could dent Liverpool’s hopes is Maribor’s goalkeeper and Player of the Year, Jasmin Handanović. At 39 years of age he is not the quickest player off his line, but he marshals his defence well. With Liverpool’s recent problems when taking their chances, his role will be vital in any hopes Maribor have in winning the game.
Can Liverpool Hurt Maribor?
With some of the best-attacking talents in the League, clearly Liverpool have the ability to hurt Maribor. With the whole Maribor side on less money per week than most of the forward line of Liverpool, it would be shocking if they are unable to.
What is worth remembering is that the Reds have struggled against defensive sides on numerous occasions since Klopp joined. The Liverpool forwards thrive on space and that is the one thing they will not be given. The game against Manchester United on the weekend highlighted how they can struggle against a disciplined defensive side. The players of Maribor are nowhere near the quality of José Mourinho’s men, but they have the added incentive of knowing a loss all but rules them out of progressing from the group.
Without Sadio Mané, Liverpool will have to make changes from the side which faced Spartak Moscow. Klopp must decide whether to stick with the team that played Manchester United, or drop Coutinho into midfield. With the reduced attacking threat of Maribor, the latter is likely. Anything but three points will severely damage Liverpool’s hopes of qualification.
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