Liverpool head to the Estadio do Dragao on Wednesday to face an in-form FC Porto team in the Champions League Round of 16.
When the draw was made, everybody was quick to celebrate that the Reds had got themselves a great draw. Sure, it is great to have avoided the likes of Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Real Madrid; but a knockout round game in this competition is rarely a formality (especially for Liverpool).
12 years ago, reigning Champions Liverpool were drawn against Porto’s league rivals, Benfica. In similar fashion, most thought this was a routine step on the way to another campaign going deep into the competition. We lost and crashed out.
So who are FC Porto, and what kind of threat to the Portuguese outfit represent?
The Dragoes currently sit atop of the Primeira Liga, two points clear and with a game in hand over Benfica. They are in fine form, winning 7of their last 8 league games and conceding only 5 goals in the process. In fact, their league form has been outstanding all season. They are unbeaten after 21 games, have averaged slightly over 2.5 goals a game, and have conceded just 10 all season.
It is fair to say that the Portuguese league isn’t the best barometer in which to judge the true quality of the team, so it may be better to consider their Champions League efforts. Porto were paired with Monaco, RB Leipzig (Hello, Naby!), and Besiktas. They ultimately finished 2nd in the group with 10 points, 6 of which coming from wins home and away against Monaco (8-2 aggregate score).
Traditionally, people would naturally assume that only a home win would be a good result, and certainly this is true of the Group Stages. However, arguably the most important thing for Porto, and the element they will not want to jeopardize, is not losing. Looking bigger picture, the Dragoes mindset will be to enable themselves to go to Anfield without needing to win. A 0-0 1st Leg would see them go through with a score draw away. Given that Liverpool would need to then attack at Anfield, they could fancy rolling the dice on the counter attack.
The positive here is that unlike their watertight record in their domestic league, Porto actually conceded 10 goals in their Champions League Group. This likely gives us a better comprehension as to the real quality the team has. Considering this, Liverpool could be tempted to attempt to kill the tie off early using their firepower.
The main question most are likely asking is whether, or where, the Portuguese side really represent danger. Do they have something or someone that Liverpool should be worried about?
The first thing to mention on this topic would be that Danilo Pereira, their holding player, will be missing. Danilo has been an important tactical part of the team’s success and they will miss him, however; Sergio Oliveira has stepped in very well in recent weeks. He represents a player that offers more than just a traditional No. 6 and can step forward and contribute.
Aside from the front partnership of Vincent Boubakar and Moussa Marega, who have combined for 36 goals so far this season (League/Champions League), Liverpool should be wary of left back Alex Telles. Why be concerned with a left back? Well, cast your mind back to the first half of last weekend’s game against Southampton. Ryan Bertrand caused some issues pushing forward into the gaps left by an inverted Mo Salah and produced some dangerous crosses. Telles offers the same threat, and in fact is
fantastic at delivering the ball from wide areas, both in open play and from set-pieces. He has 10 assists so far this season from full back.
The graphic below shows the areas in which Telles operated during Porto’s recent 3-1 victory over Braga. He finished up with 3 assists in the game, 2 from open play and one from a corner.
The reason this is a concern is that Liverpool regularly concede the right hand side of the pitch and will continue to do so if Jurgen Klopp feels his side can put the tie to bed in Portugal. Salah will tuck inside and leave the right back and right central midfielder to cover. This nearly proved costly against Southampton, and could certainly be something Porto look to exploit with Alex Telles.
In order to combat this, Liverpool are likely to do a couple of things. Firstly, I think most would safely assume that Joe Gomez will come in for Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back. The former is more defensively minded and not as likely to be caught as high up the field. The other tactical component we could see is the right central midfielder being tasked with covering the wider area more predominantly. With this in mind, we could see James Milner lining up there, particularly in the absence of Emre Can.
All things considered, Liverpool should have enough to win. However, they will need to be cautious of playing into Porto’s hands. If Porto do indeed retreat and look to hit on the break, the Reds will need to be careful. Game management has been an issue for the Reds, and in the Champions League these sloppy goals can come back to hurt you.