The Champions League draw has served up an exciting encounter for Portugal’s lone representative in the knockout stage of the competition. Porto will play hosts to Jürgen Klopp and his Liverpool side on Wednesday night, before traveling to England in March for the return leg.
The matchup is set to be thrilling, with both teams in great form and high on confidence. While Liverpool are certainly the favourites, Porto is more than capable of launching a run in the competition.
PortuGOAL previews the intriguing encounter.
Liverpool team news
Liverpool enter the knockout stage after a turbulent January that saw them give Manchester City its only loss of the season only to then suffer defeat to lowly Swansea City. January also saw Liverpool knocked out of the FA Cup in the fourth round to another inferior Premier League side. Still, it is simple to argue that they are in great form, having won six of eight league games since Christmas.
The Reds come into the first leg carrying the suspension of Emre Can. This leaves their midfield relatively thin for this match as Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana are still trying to regain full fitness after respective injuries. Henderson was rested at the weekend, however, and is in line to be part of the team that visits Portugal.
Klopp will have some decisions to make in terms of his line-up on Wednesday. With the lack of depth Liverpool have currently, many of the same players that featured Sunday will have to be included again for the Reds. Players who did not start Sunday’s match that could be called upon for the first leg are James Milner, Dejan Lovern, Jordan Henderson, and Alberto Moreno.
Porto team news
Porto has some very pressing injuries and suspensions of their own. The back line will take a major hit this week if Marcano cannot regain fitness by Wednesday, as his fellow centre-back Felipe is suspended for the first leg. If Marcano cannot win his race to fitness, Sergio Conceição may be forced to employ newcomer Osorio in the back four. While Osorio has been impressive for Tondela this season, making his Porto debut against the daunting Liverpool attack would be a difficult assignment.
A less crucial, but still significant question, will be the fitness of Aboubakar. Porto has relied on his goal tally this season, but do possess other players capable of finding the net. Still, his availability is undeniably being monitored closely by Conceição. Lastly of course, Danilo will unlikely be able to feature on Wednesday due to injury, but Porto remains hopeful that he may contribute in the return leg in March.
Despite these setbacks, the Portuguese league leaders must still be confident entering the knockout stage, having won nine of their last ten home games and are unbeaten in all competitions since October 17.
Liverpool tactics and key players
Liverpool will certainly try and attack Porto’s centre-backs, especially if Marcano is unable to appear. The sheer pace of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané are enough to cause any defender problems, and Liverpool look to play through balls often to the pair. When combined with Roberto Firmino’s work rate and creativity, Liverpool’s front three will give the Porto backline plenty of trouble.
The man of the hour is indeed Mohamed Salah, who has been gaining international acclaim this season. He can threaten defences in a variety of ways with his explosive speed and unforgiving dribbling ability. While he may line up down the right side to start the match, he is often found in the middle of the pitch making unpredictable runs through the centre of defence. In addition to his pace and finishing, he boasts impressive vision; which was on display over the weekend with his assist to Firmino. Certainly, Porto must make him the priority in defence.
Liverpool’s offense does not need any help, but summer signing Andrew Robertson has provided great width in the attack. The Scottish full-back has pushed his way into the squad of late, and looks to have solidified his role down the left flank in recent weeks.
Liverpool’s defence begins with their front three, and a relentless press that often forces a change in possession. Their press has been directly responsible for recent goals against Manchester City and Tottenham. It will be imperative that Porto handles this pressure and does not give away possession easily in their defensive half.
The Reds main weakness is still their back four. After a very high-profile move to Merseyside in January, Virgil van Dijk looks to fill a much needed role at the heart of the Liverpool back four. He is a strong, imposing centre-back that has tightened the Liverpool defence. Nevertheless, his introduction to the squad has not completely solved their set-piece issues or overall defensive problems as of yet.
While Andrew Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez have shown a lot of promise as young full-backs, their youth can often be negatively exposed throughout a 90-minute contest. Several small defensive errors by these three have led to scoring chances recently, with the reliable Nathaniel Clyne still out with injury. This is where Conceição should look to exploit Liverpool.
Porto tactics and key players
Having amassed a staggering 84 goals across all competitions this season, Porto’s clinical finishing gives them an opportunity against the permeable Liverpool defence. Porto are holding out hope that Vincent Aboubakar will be fit to play alongside Moussa Marega and Yacine Brahimi as the trio has combined for 51 goals this term.
Aboubakar is consequently among the Champions League leaders with five goals during the group stage, placing him only one goal behind prolific players such as Harry Kane and Neymar for the second spot. If Porto make a run in the Champions League this spring, he may end up being one of the competition’s top goal scorers this season. Should Aboubakar fail to make the cut it is not all doom and gloom for the Portuguese side. Powerful Brazilian Tiquinho Soares, Porto’s number one striker last season, has burst into form with three goals in his last two matches as Aboubakar’s replacement.
While Aboubakar and Marega are the forceful and quick threat down the middle, Brahimi represents the playmaker of the team. With seven assists on the season, Brahimi is the creative engine in the midfield that Porto relies on for an offensive spark. Seemingly able to conjure up scoring chances from nothing, he is a big reason why the front two are able to get on the score sheet so often. His ability to attract defenders and move the play forward will often create space for other Porto attackers.
The only player in the squad to have more assists than Brahimi this season is the brilliant Alex Telles. The former Galatasaray defender has been in astonishing form this campaign, tallying ten assists from the left full-back position and has emphatically gained the attention of Europe’s top clubs.
Right full-back Ricardo Pereira has a similar playing style, and has been a sensation for Porto this season. His defensive ability, combined with his tendency to get forward down the right flank makes Porto a threat on either side.
Liverpool have had a tendency to lose defensive aerial battles in this box, especially on set pieces. This shortcoming may make Alex Telles the most important man on the pitch over the two legs. Telles, Pereira, and Brahimi should be able to overwhelm Liverpool’s young full-backs and deliver accurate crosses towards their very strong, and very efficient forwards.
Liverpool deserves to be the favourites in this matchup, but it is not a terrible draw for Porto. If there is any club in the knockout round that Porto’s strengths matchup well against, it is Liverpool. With very comparable midfields, the two legs will be decided by the offenses. Both Jürgen Klopp and Sergio Conceição will undoubtedly look to attack, with both correctly sensing that two or three goals may not be enough win this tie. While it will be difficult for Porto to get the better of Liverpool, they can be successful if they are clinical in exposing Liverpool’s weaknesses in defending crosses and set pieces.
FC Porto: José Sá, Ricardo Pereira, Reyes, Marcano, Alex Telles, Brahimi, Oliveira, Herrera, Corona, Marega, Aboubakar
Liverpool: Karius, Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Matip, Robertson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Salah, Firmino, Mané
by Justino Flores