Both Liverpool and Maribor can consider Wednesday evening a good night at the office – Liverpool came away with another dominant victory, while Maribor only conceded three at Anfield instead of the seven from the reverse fixture a fortnight ago.
The Reds are top of their group in the Champions League, with two draws or one victory in their final two matches guaranteeing qualification to the knockout stages.
A daunting trip to Spain to play Sevilla still awaits, but Jurgen Klopp’s side have taken care of the must-win games against Maribor whilst going unbeaten against Sevilla and Spartak Moscow in the first round of fixtures. Draws are better in the Champions League than they are in the Premier League – hence Liverpool’s current healthy position in their group.
With world-class sides in danger of going out of the competition at the group stage – such as Atletico Madrid, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund – Liverpool would be progressing in their development under Klopp by remaining in Europe’s elite beyond Christmas.
Reaching the knockout stages for the first time since 2009 would have been the target going into this season’s Champions League, but can the Reds go further?
If they could top their group, that would immediately improve their chances of at least going one step further. Sevilla appear to be the greatest threat to that particular achievement, but Liverpool still need some proper revenge for the 2016 Europa League final. Winning in Spain would provide some compensation.
Victory would also represent a much greater statement of Liverpool’s intentions this season in the Champions League. Beating Maribor twice is good for progressing from the group, but will frighten none of the best teams in Europe.
Sevilla are perhaps not the side they once were (losing 5-1 in Russia was a shocker), but the 2-2 draw at Anfield in September emphasised their enduring quality and threat.
If Liverpool can rediscover their successful tactics when playing top-class teams away from home, then they have more than enough quality going forward to win. However, should they defend as they did against Manchester City and Tottenham, then Sevilla will frustrate the Reds once again, perhaps to an even greater degree on their own ground.
Topping the group would lead to a easier draw in the last 16 in all likelihood, though by that stage Liverpool are unlikely to be big favourites against any team they face. Regardless, if Leicester City can reach the quarter-finals, then so can Liverpool.
Going forward, the Reds are devastating at their best, while the defence can be secure when it wants to be (only Manchester United have kept more clean sheets in the Premier League in the last fifteen games).
Instead, Liverpool’s defence tends to fall to pieces in particular games, with the Watford, Manchester City and Tottenham matches prime examples.
However, mistakes and scares remain across most matches, hence the constant anxiety that exists in the Liverpool fanbase whenever the back four is under attack.
In Europe though, Liverpool should have more space to play as they will be constantly playing elite teams once in the knockout stages, who will likely try to come onto Liverpool. By contrast, there are numerous teams in the Premier League who only look to defend against the Reds – Huddersfield Town were the latest example, and whilst Liverpool won 3-0, it was a struggle, with a fortuitous goal (wonderfully converted by Daniel Sturridge) which opened the floodgates towards a victory that looked dominant on paper, but was far less so on the pitch.
Liverpool have the potential to claim big scalps in the Champions League, just as they did numerous times under Rafael Benitez, especially in 2005.
By 2008-2009, Benitez had built a genuinely strong side which was one of the best in Europe – a team that could now be the victim of a scalp, rather than handing them out themselves (though they continued to do so against the likes of Real Madrid).
Benitez’s success was helped by consistently qualifying for the Champions League, which helped re-establish Liverpool as a serious European force. In order to create such momentum again and enjoy realistic hopes in the Champions League, Liverpool actually need to first focus on their domestic foundations.
Finishing in the top four now is considerably more difficult than a decade ago, with Manchester City and Tottenham joining the original ‘Big Four’ of Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea in competing for top four places in the Premier League.
English sides in general appear to be staging a mid-to-late-2000s comeback in Europe after years of Spanish and German dominance, with Tottenham and City particularly sending out early warnings to the rest of Europe, highlighted this week by Tottenham’s dismissal of Real Madrid.
Obviously Liverpool want to be part of this pro-English, anti-Brexit movement in Europe, but, at the same time, they are taking their first steps again in the Champions League, having barely featured since 2009.
All of England’s four other representatives are arguably more balanced sides, with better defences, but if Liverpool can become top-four regulars, then they will quickly progress to become one of England’s best hopes for success in Europe, just as they were a decade ago.
Certainly, at this moment, the Reds would prefer parallels with the progressive Tottenham side of 2011, who have since gone on to gradually establish themselves as a domestic and European force, than the stagnant Arsenal side who could never get beyond the last 16 of the Champions League.
What Liverpool definitely cannot rely on is repeating 2005 and winning the Champions League every year just to appear in the competition – the quarter-finals would be a more realistic target for the Reds this season.