Match 64
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Match 63
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Football Whispers

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Football Whispers
 By Steven Kelly

Klopp, Liverpool edge closer to the line in Champions League quest

In Seville, Liverpool were a minute away from Champions League progress but they threw away a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3. They must now get something from the final match at home to Spartak Moscow on Wednesday.

Lots of things are still stacked in their favour. They are unbeaten in the group so far and another draw or win will see them through to the knockout stage for the first time in nine years.

They've been strong at Anfield for most of Jurgen Klopp's time in charge, one calamitous week in January aside when they lost three consecutively.

Liverpool have never thrown away European qualification when holding the advantage before a home game, either. Spartak failed to beat Maribor, a side Liverpool beat twice with a 10-0 aggregate. The Russians have just one away point in the group so far.

Looking at all that, it depends what kind of supporter you are. Most will be confident; others will fear football has a nasty habit of kicking you when you least expect it.

Spartak have a notable Anfield success in the past, during the now-extinct Cup Winners' Cup competition in 1992. Having won the first leg 4-2 in Moscow, largely thanks to Bruce Grobbelaar's red card, they eased past Graeme Souness' dishevelled side 2-0 having barely been in trouble during either game.

The group game in Russia on Sept. 26 saw the home side take an early lead against the run of play but a classy Philippe Coutinho equaliser triggered an all-out assault on the Spartak goal which failed to produce a winner.

At the time, Liverpool were suffering a relative goal drought. They'd scored three against Leicester the game before but generally the Reds were struggling to get more than one goal a game at the time.

No such luck for the Russians this week. Liverpool are flying, with 33 goals in their last 10 matches. All of Klopp's main attacking threats are getting in on the act, making them a nightmare to contain.

There are straws to clutch for the visitors beyond football's unpredictable nature. Liverpool were kept out for 30 minutes by previous opponents Brighton, who played more like the away team.

A similar delay at Anfield might adversely affect the atmosphere. Supporters relish these European nights but that generally works on the principle Liverpool are on the front foot, chasing a win rather than trying to avoid defeat. Impatience with a tepid start could play into the Russians' hands.

It is vital therefore that Klopp gets his men to play their normal game, face down Spartak as if it were a match they need to win. This is what managers always say of course, no matter what advantage they hold from previous results.

He had a good European record with Borussia Dortmund and led Liverpool to a Europa League final in his first season in charge. The manager's experience is not the issue.

Most of the players have not felt this type of pressure before, so here's another point on the learning curve for them. If Liverpool are to progress under Klopp each challenge must be met head on, the consequences of failure being severe.

Liverpool drew 1-1 in Moscow and a similar result would be enough on Wednesday.

Liverpool's good run of form has seen them overtake Tottenham and Arsenal in the Premier League, so a dramatic exit from the Champions League wouldn't capsize the season completely.

The erratic nature of their results in the last 18 months means fans are desperate for this form to continue. The moment it ends generally leads to a minor collapse, not the temporary stumble a really good team would normally suffer.

Klopp's rotation of the squad has been a little clunky up to now, almost forced on him by absentees. The bizarre back three against Brighton was no doubt chosen with a view to ensuring he'd get the selection right for Spartak.

Brighton were efficiently dispatched and the makeshift defence largely untroubled. Whatever team the manager picks, if he has a win at the end of the day then he got it right full stop.

The stakes are high. A club's presence in the Champions League says much for their prestige, but dropping out at the group stage can be humiliating no matter the opposition.

Spartak were top seeds in Group E, yet most felt Sevilla would be the major obstacle. So far that's how it's turned out but now Liverpool must finish the job.

Failure since 2009 means Liverpool's European reputation has taken something of a hit in recent years. Go back just a little further and Liverpool were beating Real Madrid, Inter and AC Milan, Juventus, Chelsea and Barcelona. It's hardly ancient history but somehow in the breakneck, impatient world of football it feels like it.

Liverpool may have been missing from football's biggest stage, but on Wednesday they at least get the opportunity to stand upon it alongside the rest.

Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.


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