What Liverpool can expect from FC Augsburg in the Europa League
As Liverpool travel to FC Augsburg in the Europa League Round of 32 on Thursday, ESPN FC's Tom Bell takes a look at their relatively unheralded opponents...
Who are Augsburg?
This is the question Liverpool's German midfielder Emre Can has found himself fielding from teammates ahead of Thursday's first leg at the WWK Arena. Located in the southern German state of Bavaria, Augsburg is 30km from Munich but its football history is far removed from that of its neighbour.
FC Augsburg's former players include Helmut Haller -- the first goalscorer in the 1966 World Cup final against England -- Bernd Schuster and former Liverpool striker Karl-Heinz Riedle, who began his career there. But all three found fame elsewhere and the team have hovered mainly in the second and third divisions.
They are nicknamed Die Fuggerstädter (the Fugger-towners) in reference to the local Fugger family -- a wealthy 15th and 16th century business dynasty who funded the Fuggerei, a social housing complex in the city that is claimed to be the world's oldest still in use. And in the 21st century it was another local businessman, Walter Seinsch, who led a takeover with the club in financial strife and playing in the fourth tier in front of crowds of under a thousand.
Still in the third-tier Regionalliga Sud when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, they rose to reach the Bundesliga for the first time in 2011 before a fifth-place finish in 2015 earned their first taste of European football.
How do Augsburg line up -- where are the likely threats?
Favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, head coach Markus Weinzierl can be expected to field a back four of captain and right-back Paul Verhaegh, centre-backs Hong Jeong-ho and Ragnar Klavan, and left-back Philipp Max. In front of them would be Dominik Kohr and the influential Daniel Baier, but the latter's ankle injury means Jeffrey Gouweleeuw -- a centre-half -- could help screen the defence.
Raul Bobadilla spearheads the attack. The Paraguay striker goes into the Round of 32 as the Europa League's joint leading scorer with six goals; he also scored against Liverpool at Anfield for Young Boys in the same competition in 2012.
The combination behind Bobadilla has chopped and changed but will feature the Brazilian Caiuby on the left flank. Koo Ja-cheol and Alexander Esswein could complete the trio in an otherwise settled and compact side in which the full-backs provide width.
In goal is Marwin Hitz, who a year ago this week became only the third goalkeeper to score a Bundesliga goal from open play, after Jens Lehmann and Frank Rost.
Goals, however, have not been free-flowing. Augsburg scored 43 (conceding the same number) in 34 league matches last season, against Liverpool's relatively barren tally of 52 (four more than they conceded) in 38 league outings. This season Augsburg have 23 for and 31 against in 21 league matches, compared with Liverpool's 38 for and 36 against in 26.
How does boss Weinzierl match up to Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp?
Weinzierl is the only coach to have won twice in the Bundesliga against Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, a feat that eluded Klopp. One of those victories, by a 1-0 margin in April 2014, ended Bayern's 52-game unbeaten Bundesliga run, even if Guardiola did rest players for the Champions League clash with Manchester United.
A more reserved character than Klopp, former Bayern reserve-team midfielder Weinzierl became the Bundesliga's youngest manager when he was appointed aged 37 in 2012 with no top-flight experience. He inherited the second smallest budget in the division but, like Klopp, has promoted younger players and improved average ones.
Last February he took his side to Borussia Dortmund -- then managed by Klopp -- and won. But Klopp's record overall against Augsburg is played 10, won five and drawn three.
What form are Augsburg in and how did they reach the Round of 32?
Weinzierl's men head into the first knockout round sitting 14th in the 18-team Bundesliga. They rounded off a torrid opening two months of 2015-16 with a 5-1 hammering at Dortmund on Oct. 25, then improved with four wins and two draws in their next seven league games before the winter break.
Since the season resumed on Jan. 23, Augsburg have had two goalless draws followed by two defeats -- the most recent being Sunday's 3-1 loss at home to Bayern, in which Bobadilla scored his 11th goal of the season.
Drawn in group L of the Europa League alongside Athletic Bilbao, AZ Alkmaar and Partizan Belgrade, Die Fuggerstädter lost two of their home matches before qualifying as runners-up to Bilbao in dramatic circumstances.
Needing to win by at least two goals in Belgrade -- and take head-to-head records out of the equation by matching Partizan's 3-1 win in Germany -- Augsburg led 2-1 going into the 89th minute. They poured forward and Caiuby set up Bobadilla to score, sending them through at Partizan's expense.
How do the German side's priorities compare with Liverpool's?
The return of European action is not the most conveniently timed for Augsburg while the possibility of relegation still looms (although Dortmund have knocked them out of the domestic DFB-Pokal).
Goalkeeper Hitz has said the tie is "four days off from league stress" before they travel to the Bundesliga's bottom team Hannover on Sunday, whereas Liverpool are neither relegation candidates nor title contenders in the Premier League and have a rare weekend off.
They do, however, face Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final three days after the return leg against Augsburg, so could do without a taxing evening at Anfield when star players are being eased back after injury or have already played when fatigued. Leaving Bavaria with a first-leg deficit to recover from is not on the agenda.
What should Liverpool expect at the WWK Arena on Thursday?
Built in 2009, Augsburg's 30,660-capacity ground should be full for what is their first meeting with an English side. The club have described the tie as "the biggest game in Augsburg's history," which Klopp has noted could inspire something special.
Liverpool, too, are playing up the importance, acknowledging that lifting this trophy represents their most likely route into the Champions League. And with the Reds having fallen at this stage in their past two Europa League runs -- to Besiktas on penalties last season and to Zenit in 2012-13 -- Klopp will want his players to be on their mettle.
As for Can, he will have some fond memories of Augsburg to relay to his curious Liverpool colleagues. Of his four league goals for his last club Bayer Leverkusen, two were scored in victories over the Bavarians.
Tom is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. Follow him @writertombell.