Game to watch – Hoffenheim v Liverpool
So, there’s good news and there’s bad news.
Liverpool fans have grown slightly more accustomed to receiving the latter over the past week or so. The last new signing to adorn Jurgen Klopp’s squad was Andrew Robertson, who arrived over three weeks ago on July 21. The pursuits of both Naby Keita and Virgil van Dijk are almost certain to end with the Reds empty-handed, and the manager knows the pressing importance of adding quality before the close of the transfer window.
That need was exposed on the opening day of the season. Liverpool twice came from behind at Vicarage Road before taking the lead through summer arrival Mohamed Salah, the only debutant against Watford. They headed into the final minute with a 3-2 lead on a weekend where Arsenal, Everton, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham would all win. Then, as is the club’s specialty, they tripped over the shoelaces that they have refused to tie properly for the past few years.
If Liverpool’s inability to defend a set-piece under Brendan Rodgers was laughable, their continued struggles with dead-ball deliveries is now beyond a joke almost two years after his departure. Under Klopp, this is a situation that is only getting worse.
On two occasions Watford breached the Liverpool goal through a set-piece on Saturday. The Hornets scored 11 goals from set-pieces last season, the 13th highest in the league. Yet they encountered no problems in climbing higher, moving quicker and thinking faster from corners and free-kicks at the weekend.
Which brings us to the bad news: No side scored more Bundesliga goals from set-pieces last season (16) than Hoffenheim, Liverpool’s opponents in the Champions League play-off first leg on Tuesday.
The good news slightly tempers this – Hoffenheim won the fewest aerial duels per game (15.1) of any Bundesliga side last season – but it is the sliver of silver lining on the darkest of clouds.
Liverpool cannot afford to fall even before the first hurdle in the Champions League this season. With two defeats in cup finals since Klopp’s arrival, there has been no tangible proof of his success. A seat at Europe’s top table would be a huge boost – and perhaps make signings somewhat easier in the final two weeks of the window – but they still have to earn their invite to that particular party.
It will be no simple task, and Klopp might well value avoiding defeat in the first leg as his priority. Hoffenheim lost fewer league games than every Bundesliga side except for Bayern Munich last season, Serge Gnabry and Havard Nordtveit are among their shrewd summer signings, and in Julian Nagelsmann they have a manager tipped as one of his generation’s leading German lights in coaching. That is a feeling Klopp knows only too well, but his own light would be dimmed considerably if Liverpool were to stumble on Tuesday evening.
Player to watch – Georginio Wijnaldum
In truth, it could be any one of the three Liverpool midfielders who will start in Germany. Wijnaldum, Emre Can and captain Jordan Henderson toiled against Watford, proving about as useful as an appendix, and almost as creative. The trio provided three goalscoring opportunities between them – one apiece – while their average pass completion rate was 74.4%.
It was a midfield as stodgy as a jam roly poly after a large main course, as unimaginative as a forced film sequel, as dull as anecdotes from a middle-class gap year student, and offered about as much penetration as [REDACTED].
The goalkeeping and defending was questionable and the forward line wonderful, but there was nothing to connect the dots, to bridge the gap in the middle, against Watford. And Klopp duly noted as much. “We don’t have too many midfield players in the moment who have experience,” he said after the 3-3 draw.
In the absence of both Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, it was Wijnaldum who was tasked with carrying the ball out of midfield. Henderson sat, Can chased and both struggled, but it was Wijnaldum who looked most out of his depth. He had the fewest touches, made the fewest tackles and completed the fewest passes of any midfielder in red.
Combine that with his risible attempts at clearing a last-minute Watford corner on Saturday, his curious inability to ever play well away from home, and his insistence in May that the Champions League would offer a chance “to play against better teams”, and the Dutchman is due a dominant performance.
Team to watch – Middlesbrough
As lazy as the choice is, it is warranted. Middlesbrough started this campaign with little more than a splutter, losing 1-0 to fellow promotion candidates Wolves on the opening day. An improved performance saw Sheffield United beaten by the same scoreline the following week, but Garry Monk must still be expecting much more.
That has to be delivered against Burton. Hull put the bottom side to the sword at the weekend, putting four goals past Stephen Bywater as if it were a review of the 1999/2000 Premier League season. Even the Tigers cannot boast the considerable firepower of an expensive Middlesbrough frontline now supplied by new loan signing Lewis Baker of Chelsea.
Manager to watch – Brendan Rodgers
In nine years as a manager across five different clubs in three different countries, Brendan Rodgers has only two seasons of managing in the Champions League to his name.
The first was in 2014/15, where the Northern Irishman guided Liverpool to an uninspiring third place in the group stages, one point above Ludogorets Razgrad. They drew one match with the Bulgarian minnows, only winning the other with a penalty in the final minute. A particular lowlight of this campaign was the ill-advised decision to field a reserve side in defeat to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
The second was last season, where the Northern Irishman guided Celtic to fourth place in the group stages, without a win in six fixtures against Barcelona, Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach. A pulsating 3-3 draw with City was a memorable occasion on the club’s first foray into this stage of the Champions League for three years; a 7-0 defeat to Barcelona was a sobering reminder of the chasm that exists between them and the elite.
It is a gap that Rodgers can never truly hope to overcome in his time in Scotland, but continued progress would not go amiss. In 2014/15 and 2015/16, Celtic fell at the play-off stage of the Champions League to NK Maribor and Malmo. An unbeaten domestic season was a remarkable achievement in his debut campaign, but forward steps in Europe are a necessity. A statement win against Astana would leave Rodgers closer to making it third time lucky in the Champions League proper.
One-on-one battle to watch – Modou Barrow v John Terry
A pair of former Manchester United centre-halves will meet in the dug-out at the Madejski Stadium when Jaap Stam pits his wits against Steve Bruce on Tuesday evening. Both Reading and Aston Villa were tipped to battle for promotion at the start of the season. Both Reading and Aston Villa are yet to win their first games.
The hosts are unlikely to have missed the giant target that Villa adorn proudly in their starting line-up. The acquisition of John Terry was seen as a coup, but the 36-year-old has one obvious weakness. Like the father with dodgy knees chasing his children, he is rather susceptible to a turn of pace.
Wales Online claimed that Cardiff’s Kenneth Zohore ‘bullied’ the former Chelsea captain at the weekend. The striker did not score but tormented Terry, who must have wished for a 26th-minute substitution to spare his blushes and his lungs.
Expect Stam to use the pacy Barrow in a similar fashion. And if Terry cannot handle the speed, then Bruce can always call upon the fresh legs of a sprightly 33-year-old Chris Samba.
Football League game to watch – Hull City v Wolves
Nine teams are yet to lose at this nascent stage of the Championship season; one of those records is guaranteed to be besmirched come Wednesday. Cardiff, Nottingham Forest, Ipswich, Sunderland, QPR, Leeds and Preston all face sides with at least one ‘L’ on their form cards. Hull host Wolves in the only meeting of two unbeaten sides this midweek.
Even just two games into the season, certain teams have already set themselves apart. Cardiff, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich, although unheralded before a ball was kicked, have all won both of their games. So too have Wolves, but that much was expected of a team that boasts two of the three most expensive Championship signings ever in their squad.
Ruben Neves has impressed thus far for Jorge Mendes’ new favourite plaything, and with Helder Costa still to return from injury, Wolves are the team most fear in the second tier.
Hull have taken relegation in their stride. A 1-1 draw at Aston Villa, managed by former boss Steve Bruce, was followed by an emphatic 4-1 victory over Burton at the weekend, with Abel Hernandez resuming his love affair with the Championship after the pesky Premier League briefly interrupted him.
No Championship side has scored more goals than Hull (5); no Championship side has conceded fewer goals than Wolves (0). Amber takes on amber, but an evening of entertainment has been green-lit at the KC Stadium.
European game to watch – Real Madrid v Barcelona
The El Clasico is hardly a fixture that needs added spice, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s five-match ban for pushing referee Ricardo de Burgos Bengoetxea in the first leg of the Supercopa de España makes the second leg even more intriguing.
In 24 minutes as a substitute on Saturday, Ronaldo scored one stunning goal, was booked for removing his shirt in celebration, received a second yellow card for diving, then shoved Bengoetxea in a moment of petulance.
Real Madrid carry a 3-1 lead into the Bernabeu on Wednesday, and history suggests they will emerge with the first trophy of the season. Not since 2012 has a team overcome a first-leg deficit to lift the Spanish Super Cup; on that occasion, Barcelona let a first-leg lead slip to Los Blancos.
Barca will be hoping to reverse history and, in the process, save face. It would be the perfect way to welcome new £36million signing Paulinho. But then Ronaldo’s Real teammates will be out to avenge the £2,700 fine imposed on their suspended contemporary earlier this week. It doesn’t bear thinking about the tax on that.