Liverpool's season hinges on Augsburg visit, Sunday's Capital One Cup final
The workload of modern footballers has been the hot topic of the week. Manchester City's Manuel Pellegrini deciding to rest almost a whole team for their 5-1 drubbing at Chelsea on Sunday was the main focus of the debate. Given that Liverpool is the English club that's played the most football so far this season -- with extra time and replays taken into account -- it's ironic that Jurgen Klopp has actually had a little breathing space this week in order to prepare fully for his team's Europa League last-32 second leg with Augsburg on Thursday.
With the Reds knocked out of the FA Cup, their fans had to sit and watch others play in "the greatest tournament in the world" -- a term rarely used nowadays without a cynical smirk on one's face. That hiatus for the players will be a brief one as Liverpool face City in the Capital One Cup final on Sunday, so there will be intense speculation on which team will be selected for both upcoming matches.
In terms of the quality of the opposition, there's no doubt Klopp should save his best team for Sunday. Even if Pellegrini stays true to his word, choosing the likes of Willy Caballero and other second-stringers to face Liverpool, they'll be a far tougher nut to crack than Augsburg. Not that Klopp or others can be convinced of that judging by the efforts of his side in the 0-0 draw with the Bundesliga side last Thursday. Liverpool were ponderous and complacent, only realising during the second half that they had a fight on their hands.
Some fans jumped the gun and started speculating upon whether Liverpool could run up a significant lead in the first leg and rest most of the team in the second so the best players were fully rested for City. They were soon dissuaded from such notions and in fact were relieved when the home side only hit the post with minutes to go. Liverpool's home form has not been good and though they've just completed two away clean sheets, their inability to keep other teams at bay is a huge factor in their stumbling season. Had that late Augsburg effort gone in, Thursday's task would have become so much harder.
The 6-0 win over Aston Villa was nothing to sniff at yet you sensed some would go overboard about a so-called return to form. Liverpool also thrashed Southampton 6-1 in December but followed it up with an embarrassing 2-0 defeat at relegation-threatened Newcastle. It was forcefully argued by some that Villa hadn't been beaten so resoundingly by anybody else this season despite being so poor. That may be true, but the evidence of your own eyes ought to count for something when watching a Liverpool team that has not been consistent from one game to the next, never mind throughout the season.
The form and fitness of Daniel Sturridge is key. Against Villa he took up good positions, scoring once and almost scoring more while inspiring all around them to up their game. The Augsburg first leg was entirely different. He was tentative, mindful of making physical challenges while not wanting to sprint too abruptly in case one of his numerous weak spots buckled under him.
Philippe Coutinho stayed glued to the left wing, rarely threatening, while Roberto Firmino's license to roam meant aimless wandering around the pitch rather than causing the danger he had at Villa just days earlier. As Liverpool's entire attacking threat seemed out of sorts, it fell upon the remainder to knuckle down and at least ensure they took a draw back to Anfield for the second leg.
Augsburg treated the occasion as the biggest night in their history. Flattering, since they'd only just played giants Bayern Munich. Klopp's return to Germany also contributed to the buzz but he of all people will be mindful: Liverpool's historical significance is great but it's time he and his players started adding new chapters to a large, but now slightly dusty, book.
The 0-0 draw is a decent score on which to build towards an eventual victory and a place in the last 16 but the home form is a concern. Struggling Sunderland managed two late goals the last time Liverpool played at Anfield.
Nerves could also play a big part in this. It's possible Klopp will simply try to forget the upcoming final with City and go all out to secure the win against Augsburg with his strongest possible team, getting at the opposition from the first whistle. If successful, such a strategy would hopefully leave enough time for him to withdraw certain fragile players. Klopp will be aware of Manchester City's gruelling trip to the Ukraine this week and hoping his Sunday opponents are facing a similar predicament.
One thing Klopp will be dreading is the spectre of extra time. Augsburg are routinely being ignored in all this analysis. They did not look a great side in the first leg but they worked hard and exuded a traditional German efficiency that could certainly keep a nervous Liverpool at bay for a long time. The failure to score an away goal in Germany now becomes fascinating. This is European competition at its most beautiful and exciting, the kind of occasion Liverpool fans have witnessed many, many times.
Liverpool's season could be ignominiously over by Sunday, with two losses triggering all manner of recrimination. But the alternative is another round of the Europa League to look forward to with the Capital One trophy safely tucked away. A favourable draw in the last 16 and supporters who had at one time wished for this season to just be over may actually regard it as an unpredictably exciting one.
That's the fault line upon which everybody stands. All of that hope and excitement will amount to nothing though if the reds can't do the job against Augsburg. Bundesliga strugglers they may well be, but that won't mean a thing if the "wrong" Liverpool turn up on the night.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.