It is not about who scores the goals for Liverpool and Paris-Saint Germain in their Champions League opener at Anfield on Tuesday, but rather, which side will be able to stop the other from scoring that will determine who gets an early foothold in Group C.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
No one is questioning the credentials of either club’s offence. Liverpool have amassed the maximum 15 points through their first five Premier League matches, trailing Chelsea on the slimmest of goal difference after bagging 11 goals through those contests.
Last season’s Champions League runners-up boast a potent trident strike force in Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, and the trio have accounted for eight of those goals. Firmino scored in both of Liverpool’s last two contests, though he was an injury concern after suffering an eye injury in an awkward clash with Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen in their 2-1 victory last time out.
Manager Jurgen Klopp is eager to use that win as a springboard into this contest given it was Liverpool’s first match against one of the elites in the Premier League, and the higher tempo and quality served as a reminder of the demands of European football.
“It was different to all the other games obviously, because Tottenham is a different team so we had to do that, but that was actually always one of our biggest strengths so we did pretty well.” Klopp said at Monday’s news conference. “If we could do better that would be really cool, because probably we need to.
“But the Champions League is there to face teams like that. … Everyone knows where Paris is, obviously, and everyone knows about their power on the pitch so it’s a challenge – but I’m really looking forward to it.”
While Liverpool fortified themselves in the offseason with the additions of Alisson between the sticks, Naby Keita’s long-awaited arrival from Leipzig and Xherdan Shaqiri’s depth in attack beyond the trio, midfielder Fabinho continues to be the odd man out. The £39 million signing from Monaco has yet to appear in a match for the Reds and was among the reserves just twice in their first five contests.
Of the three midfielders Klopp is expected to start among Keita, Jordan Henderson and James Milner, Henderson may be the most likely of the three to be subbed out at some point given he is still recovering from England’s run to the World Cup semifinals. Still, he is eager to start the journey back to the Champions League final and take that last step to lift “Old Big Ears.”
“I think last season was obviously a good step in the right direction, but at the end of the day we didn’t win anything,” he told the club’s official website.
“So there’s a lot of room for improvement and this season we want to make that step closer and try and get some silverware because ultimately that’s what we’re here to try to do: be the best team in England and in Europe as well. We’ve got to keep winning games.”
But while it is go, go, go on offence for Liverpool, Alisson has made an immediate impact at the back. The Reds have conceded just two goals in their five matches, with Alisson directly responsible for one with a howler of a dribbling move. Virgil van Dijk has been massive in central defence, surprisingly augmented there by Joe Gomez while Dejan Lovren continues to recover from an abdominal injury and his run to the World Cup final with Croatia.
Yet they are in for a stern challenge in Paris-Saint Germain, who boast a wealth of attacking options themselves in burgeoning superstar and World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe along with Brasil ace Neymar and fellow South Americans Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria.
The quartet have taken well to new manager Thomas Tuchel, with Les Parisiens also sporting the maximum 15 points through their first five matches in domestic play. PSG have racked up an impressive 17 goals, 13 through their four-man attack force in the German’s 4-2-3-1 set-up.
This match also serves as an early referendum on Klopp’s successor at Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel took over PSG after a one-season coaching sabbatical, replacing Unai Emery after he failed to get beyond the Champions League quarterfinals in each of his two seasons in Paris. Domestic domination with Le Rouge-et-Bleu is a given as they have done the treble four consecutive seasons running, the mandate is European success come hell or high water.
“Paris have gone very close to making the quarter-finals in the last two years,” Tuchel noted in his Monday news conference. “Sometimes people say a lot of things to try to explain and find reasons for every single little event and everything that happens… but maybe sometimes you just need a special win to get the confidence to go a long way in a competition.
“In my opinion, if you want to go a long way, you have to have the experience that you can do something special. It makes our challenge even bigger. Liverpool have won the Champions League five times, they have that experience, this stadium has that experience.”
One player whose experience would be welcome in this game but is unavailable is goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The old lion is serving a three-match ban for his comments following his loss to Real Madrid in last spring’s semifinal loss while with Juventus. PSG central midfielder Marco Verratti is also out for this match after being sent off in their round of 16 loss to Real last season.
PSG keeper Alphonse Areola turned in his first clean sheet in domestic play last weekend in their 4-0 romp past Saint-Etienne, continuing his fine play for France as he deputised for the injured Hugo Lloris in Nations League play. Areola posted a shutout in a draw against Germany and conceded once in a victory over the Netherlands during the international break.
Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid 21/20 favourites to open group play with a victory, while PSG are 11/5 underdogs to take all three points back across the channel. The odds of the team’s splitting points are 27/10.
For those who expect a goal-fest, or at least three or more, a Liverpool win over 2.5 goals is getting 7/4 odds, while one for PSG returns 10/3. A 2-2 draw would bring back a 7/1 return on such an investment. For those thinking the defence and keepers will step to the forefront, a draw under 2.5 goals is the oddsmakers choice at 24/5, followed by a Liverpool win (11/2) and a PSG victory (17/2).
For first goal-scorers, Salah is a clear favourite at 16/5, surprisingly followed by Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge at 5/1. Cavani lurks just behind the England international as Les Parisiens’ top option at 11/2, with Mbappe and Firmino returning 6/1 odds if they make it 1-0.
Salah is the only striker with better than even money odds to score during the match at 10/11, with both Cavani and Neymar checking in at 17/10. Just behind the PSG duo are Mbappe and Liverpool counterpart Mane at 9/5.
One of the things that stands out about this match is the contrast in attack. Liverpool likely will go through the middle of the pitch with Milner and Keita to challenge Andre Rabiot and Lassana Diarra while exploiting Verratti’s absence, while PSG will look to unleash Mbappe down the right side of the pitch to pin back Robertson.
On the other flank, Di Maria can use his wiles against Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is still learning his way on the job against higher-end competition and also has accrued three yellow cards in his first five Premier League matches.
To a degree, Alisson will be in the spotlight for Liverpool as the focal point of compare and contrast given how last season’s Champions League ended with Loris Karius’ nightmarish final. The Brasil international definitely has a swagger to him, and for Liverpool fans, they can only hope he sticks to shot-stopping first and dribbling second.
Areola presents an intriguing counterpart given PSG brought Buffon on board to be one of the players who get them over the hump in Champions League. This is PSG’s seventh consecutive appearance, with the previous six ending in the quarterfinals or round of 16. The offensive talent is unquestionably there, it’s whether the defence and the goalkeeping can shine equally.
Possession and pace will be keys in this game. If Liverpool can force turnovers in the middle of the park and PSG’s half of the pitch, they will create scoring opportunities. If Rabiot and Diarra can link to Neymar on quick passes through the middle to set up runs by Mbappe and Di Maria, the Ligue 1 side will find success.
Cavani can also be a difference maker with his nous in the box, and Gomez will have to be up the challenge on a quick turnaround after helping van Dijk do a solid job in containing another world-class striker in Harry Kane in their most recent game.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Liverpool 3, Paris-Saint Germain 2.