Big Midweek: Klopp, Koeman, Lovren, Bilic, Balotelli

Daniel Storey

Neither of this week’s televised EFL Cup games are particularly inspiring, but there’s some cracking European football to watch. The final qualification hurdles for Liverpool and Everton…


Game to watch – Liverpool vs Hoffenheim
Liverpool surely can’t balls this one up, can they? They have lost only one of their last 55 competitive home games by a scoreline that would see them eliminated on Wednesday. That was the 3-2 home defeat to Swansea City last season. A repeat would be a disaster.

With one foot and three toes in the Champions League group stage, one of Liverpool’s main objectives for the season has almost been achieved. Jurgen Klopp knows that cementing their place in the top four will be even more difficult this season, but there will be extra patience afforded to Liverpool’s league form so long as they are competing in Europe’s premier competition.

Klopp will also know that the Champions League is where he can truly prove himself to be a more successful Liverpool manager than his predecessor. Brendan Rodgers signed his own death warrant with his willful capitulation in the same competition, picking an understrength team in the Bernabeu and exiting at the group stage. It was that abject acceptance of defeat that first raised doubts about Rodgers.

Klopp will struggle to match Liverpool’s second place in the Premier League in 2013/14, but he has a history of overachievement in Europe. Taking Borussia Dortmund to the final in 2012/13 is the blueprint for Liverpool optimism.

The problem with understanding something’s importance is that it invites pressure. Nerves jangle, and Liverpool are a team too generous at the back to ever be truly in control. If you can concede three times to Watford, you can concede three to a Hoffenheim team with nothing to lose.

Klopp had one eye on Wednesday when he rested several players against Crystal Palace, but is also aware of the danger of overworking his squad in the first month of a long season. The last thing he wants is weird fitness egg Raymond Verheijen sub-tweeting him.

For now though, the thought is only of the present, not future. Liverpool have waited long enough for another shot at the Champions League. Now is the night to grab that chance with both hands.


Player to watch – Dejan Lovren
Officially rested on Saturday, but Lovren’s first-team place is hardly secure. Klopp has been at pains to insist that he needs a new central defender, and Joel Matip isn’t the one looking around nervously. Lovren has ten days to show Klopp that he can still be the reliable defender Liverpool wanted when they gave Southampton £20m, and persuade his manager that they don’t need to spend £70m more to rectify the issue.

Lovren can point to a record of five clean sheets in the final six games of last season with him in the side, but Liverpool looked far more secure on Saturday with Ragnar Klavan alongside Matip. If Lovren is indeed restored to the side on Wednesday, he had better hope Liverpool don’t look shaky. Even if the Croatian argues coincidence, Klopp might not be so forgiving.


Team to watch – Everton
Liverpool aren’t the only team on Merseyside with one foot in European competition proper. Ronald Koeman might be a little less enthused by the Europa League, but with a far deeper squad than last season he should embrace it.

Everton are unlikely to climb out of their mini-league, unable to break into the top four yet far better than the teams below them, so what better opportunity to have a cup run and give supporters who have forgotten what joy feels like a season to remember?

Everton haven’t got beyond the last 16 in any European competition since 1985 and have reached one domestic cup final in their last 44 attempts. Koeman should see the Europa League as the most realistic means of increasing his popularity and standing among Everton supporters.

Two goals up from the first leg, Everton should have no problem avoiding Splitting at the seams. Yet with this game sandwiched between trips to Manchester City and Chelsea in the league, Koeman must be tempted to make wholesale changes in Croatia. Getting the balance right will be key to ensuring that Everton do not trip and fall over this final hurdle.


Manager to watch – Slaven Bilic
This week’s EFL Cup programme is fairly unappealing, but Cheltenham vs West Ham does at least provide an interesting side story given the struggles of Slaven Bilic. The use of the London Stadium for athletics means that West Ham’s first four games of the season are all away from home, hardly an ideal start.

The latest of those games is at Cheltenham, a whacking great banana skin on the pavement for West Ham to slip over. Had Bilic’s side taken a point from their first two league matches, exit at the hands of the team 20th in League Two would have been embarrassing but not catastrophic. Now Bilic is in need of a morale-boosting performance and result.

With that in mind, West Ham’s manager was probably a little peeved that the game was chosen for live TV coverage. For the second time this season, the devolution is being televised.


One-on-one battle to watch – Jesus Navas vs Gael Clichy
Don’t pretend that every time you watched Manchester City over the last three years you didn’t curse the fact that Clichy and Navas were on the same team. Well, thanks to City’s inability to sell players for decent money, Navas’ love of Andalusia and a Champions League draw that paired Sevilla with Istanbul Basaksehir, you can. It’s the moveable object vs the stoppable force, the superhero movie even the non-nerds want to watch.

Also, Emre Belozoglu vs Stephen N’Zonzi. Take a seat…


European game to watch – Nice vs Napoli
Away from English participation, there is no doubt which is the stand-out tie in Europe this week. Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the home leg of their Champions League play-off, but Maurizio Sarri was frustrated that his team could not put the tie to bed against a team with nine men after the sendings-off of Vincent Koziello and Alassane Pléa. Arkadiusz Milik and Dries Mertens were both guilty of missing presentable chances.

Nice were hugely unfortunate to draw Napoli, but now at least have a nothing-to-lose home game in which they can throw everything at their opponents. Having ended a run of three consecutive defeats without scoring against Guingamp at the weekend, Wesley Sneijder and Mario Balotelli might be the replacements for the two suspended players. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, spend the evening drooling at the wonder of Mertens, surely the most impressive performer from outside an elite club in all of Europe last season.

In truth, Nice have little chance of progression. Their defence is suspect, and conceding even once would mean having to score four times in 90 minutes to qualify. Their best hope is an early Balotelli goal and something special from Sneijder like it’s 2012 all over again.

Daniel Storey