Liverpool must get Augsburg job done with Manchester City looming
It flies in the face of convention, but Liverpool would be better served trying to settle their Europa League tie with Augsburg in the away leg this week.
The tried-and-trusted plan for teams playing away in the first leg of knockout competitions is usually to keep things tight and hope to take a decent result back for the home leg, but on this occasion circumstances dictate that is probably not the best approach for Jurgen Klopp's side.
A draw is normally regarded as a good result in a first leg away from home, while even a narrow defeat is not always such a bad thing. Liverpool have turned around many a difficult situation at home in the second leg, but perhaps a different outlook is needed this time. For one thing, the Reds seem to play with much more freedom away from home and have generally struggled to score goals at Anfield, so their best chance of going through might be to get the job done in Germany.
Additionally, if the Merseysiders could build up a lead this Thursday it would then allow them to rest some key players in the return leg next week, which comes just three days before the Capital One Cup final. Will that influence Klopp's approach to this Thursday's game? It should do, because if Liverpool can come away with a two goal advantage or more, that in turn greatly increases their chances of success at Wembley too.
With a rare free weekend sandwiched in between first and second leg, Klopp can focus all of his attentions on the game in Germany without having to rotate his squad in the way he has been forced to do almost every week since he arrived at the club last October. He can certainly field his strongest side on Thursday without having to protect certain players for the weekend, but he has no such luxury for the second leg and so some line up tinkering will certainly be needed for that one.
Their poor form at Anfield suggests that being at home for the second leg may not be the advantage it has been to Liverpool in the past, but it certainly helps with preparation for Wembley as there is no arduous travelling involved. The Europa League draw was kind to them as a second leg fixture away in some far flung destination such as Donetsk, Krasnodar or Moscow would have been much more problematic. Cup final opponents Manchester City play the night before in the Champions League so will have an extra 24 hours rest, but significantly any advantage that may bring is surely negated by having to travel to the Ukraine to face Dynamo Kiev.
With travel not a factor, the biggest threat to Liverpool's preparation for Wembley therefore is an unsatisfactory result this week that would see them unable to rest players ahead of the final. The worst case scenario is being taken to extra time yet again, and a good win in Germany is the best way to avoid that. Three times already this season the Reds have had to go through extra time in cup competitions due to their inability to win at Anfield so they obviously can't take home success for granted.
Winning the away leg more is more important than it may have been in previous years and is further magnified by the need to keep players fresh for the Wembley showdown with City.
Top of that list of players is obviously Daniel Sturridge, who will presumably start the first leg but cannot realistically be expected to play both the following Thursday and Sunday. If it comes down to a choice of starting one game or the other, surely Klopp would want his star man available for the cup final, yet if the tie is finely balanced it would be difficult not to involve Sturridge given the extra importance the Europa League has now taken on for Liverpool.
Winning this competition represents their best hope of qualifying for next season's Champions League. If it was just a normal domestic league game the following weekend rather than a cup final, it would be no surprise to see Klopp play his best team in Europe and use some of his fringe players in the league fixture. Should his team advance past Augsburg, that is something we may well see in the weeks ahead.
You have to play your best players in a cup final, though, especially when you're up against a side as strong as City. It's not just Sturridge who will need looking after either. Philippe Coutinho is only just back from injury and his minutes will need to be managed, skipper Jordan Henderson has been playing through injury and is unlikely to be able to complete two games in three days, while Roberto Firmino has rarely played two games a week and has usually been left out of cup games.
All signs point to Klopp going with his best available team in the first leg and hoping they can get the job done early. If they can do that it should make for a thrilling game at Wembley, as City have been vulnerable to teams who play with high energy and who can hit them on the counter attack. Leicester City and Tottenham both showed that in recent weeks with wins at the Etihad, while Liverpool themselves beat them in emphatic style back in November as Coutinho and Firmino inspired a 4-1 success in Manchester.
For them to have any chance of repeating that level of performance they'll need fresh legs, and the only way to ensure that is to go out and beat Augsburg convincingly this week.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.