19:45 BST, Wednesday 1st November, Anfield (Liverpool, England), BT Sport
Having defeated Maribor 7-0 in the reverse fixture two weeks ago, Liverpool go into this match as firm favourites. With their two closest challengers playing each other this round, they will see this as an opportunity to consolidate their position. As a result, while any result for Maribor would be a bonus, anything but an emphatic win for Liverpool would be a disappointment.
In the Premier League this season, Liverpool’s form has see-sawed backwards and forwards somewhat. After facing humiliation at the hands of Manchester City and Spurs within their opening 10 fixtures, Jurgen Klopp will have welcomed the visit of Huddersfield to Anfield last weekend as brief respite. Running out comfortable 3-0 winners on the day, the Reds will now be looking forward to another low-pressure Champions League game against Maribor.
This season, Maribor have been consistent in the Slovenian Prva Liga: tied at the top with rivals Olimpija NK, both have identical results in the league with 10 wins, 4 draws and no losses. They have, however, struggled to replicate this form against superior competition in the Champions’ League.
Playing their home games in a stadium that holds 7,500, in a league seldom represented in the dizzying heights of the Champions’ League group stage, Maribor’s presence in the Champions’ League Group Stage is already an over-achievement. This is only their third time at this phase of the competition, having previously qualified in 1999 and 2015. And their results this season, at least since the 1-1 home draw to Spartak Moscow (3-0 away to Sevilla and 7-0 at home to Liverpool) suggest they are not likely to make it to the final.
That said, the way the group stands, Maribor will still consider themselves qualification contenders. With Group E still tight, Maribor are only 4 points behind leaders Liverpool who have accrued 5 points so far in the competition. A heroic Maribor win at Anfield would put them right back on track, with arguably more winnable fixtures coming up: at home to Sevilla and away to Spartak Moscow.
Last Time Out
Liverpool 3-0 Huddersfield (Premier League)
Buoyed by the return of Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool ended up winning this game comfortably. While it looked as though Liverpool’s were set to continue when Mohamed Salah missed a penalty in the 42nd minute, deft finishing by Sturridge set them on their way 8 minutes later. Roberto Firmino followed up with a close-range header soon after, before Georginio Wijnaldum rounded off the scoring in the 75th minute, jinxing past a number of defenders in the box and hammering the ball into the top right corner of the goal.
Domizale 0-1 Maribor (Slovenian Prva Liga)
Maribor’s top scorer Jasmin Mesanovic was on target in the 58th minute as his side edged past 5th placed Domzale away from home 0-1. During the game itself, Maribor were out-possessed and out-shot by their opponents and were perhaps lucky to have gotten the better of them. They are now undefeated in 14 league games having conceded only 8 goals and will hope to make the most of that miserly defending against Liverpool to keep the score less than the seven they conceded at home.
Liverpool continue to miss Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, Sadio Mane and Adam Bogdan. In light of the ease of their away victory, expect Jurgen Klopp to rest some of his key players for the weekend clash with West Ham at the London Stadium. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may be preferred ahead of Phillipe Coutinho and James Milner will get a run-out ahead of Jordan Henderson.
Centre back Denis Sme and centre forward Luka Zahovic are long-term injury concerns for Maribor. With no new injuries or suspension, manager Darko Milanic is unlikely to change the team that ran out at Domzale on Saturday.
Key Battle: Ragnar Klavan (Liverpool) vs Jasmin Mesanovic (Maribor)
Ragnar Klavan has been much-maligned since he arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2016. With a tendency to defensive calamity, it isn’t hard to see why he has faced the ire of the Liverpool faithful. Called up at the weekend after Dejan Lovren picked up an injury in the warm up, Klavan performed admirably albeit against a Huddersfield side who did not look to cause Liverpool too many problems. If he can come out with another passable performance against Maribor, his manager might feel a little more comfortable about bringing his fourth string centre back onto the pitch in future.
Klavan’s task on Wednesday will be to keep Jasmin Mesanovic quiet. The 25-year-old is having a good season with the team currently tied at the top of the Slovenian first division. With 6 goals in 12 starts, he is clearly Maribor’s most potent outlet for goals. However, he has only played 32 minutes in the Champions League this season so it is unclear how he will handle the step up in quality. Klavan will fancy his chances, then, in shutting out Maribor’s goal threat. But having seen Liverpool’s defence this season, will Mesanovic be feeling similarly sanguine?
The Alex Oxymoron
After his £35m transfer to Anfield, Jurgen Klopp declared Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be an “exciting talent” who he was “really happy” to sign. Quite fittingly, though, Oxlade-Chamberlain inherited the number 21 jersey from Lucas Leiva, the Brazilian who never secured a regular place in Liverpool’s starting lineup.
Oxlade-Chamberlain left Arsenal with one mandate: to get regular playing time in a central midfield role. If the rumours are true, he turned down the opportunity to play at Chelsea because this mandate would not be met. Two months into the season, though, he continues to be a bit-part player at Liverpool. His few appearances, mostly off the bench, have seen him playing out wide.
It begs the question: Why did Oxlade-Chamberlain REALLY leave Arsenal and turn down a move to Chelsea, for Liverpool?
Prediction: Liverpool 4-0 Maribor
Despite Liverpool’s defensive frailties this season, it is unlikely that the Slovenian champions have enough to pose too much of a threat to them. The question is whether or not Maribor will come into the game with a more defensive mind-set than the one they deployed in the last Champions League fixture between them. If they can, they will be happy to keep the score to a two-goal margin. With Liverpool’s recent troubles, though, expect them to treat this match as an excercise in catharsis.
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