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Can Rafael Benitez shackle Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane?

15:31 BST 03/05/2019
Mohamed Salah Sadio Mane Liverpool
The former Liverpool boss has the tactical nous to rain on Liverpool's parade by limiting Jurgen Klopp’s rampant forwards

The dust is still settling on Liverpool’s humbling at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday which has put the five-time European champions on the brink of Champions League elimination.

Prior to the 3-0 defeat, the Reds hadn’t lost in four previous games at the Camp Nou across the 43-year history of the pair’s rivalry, so the eventual scoreline was somewhat unexpected.

While many may get lost in the schadenfreude of seeing Jurgen Klopp’s troops on the receiving end of a beatdown in Spain, the plan truth is the final score wasn’t a fair reflection of the encounter. 

Even more gut-wrenching was the fact that the away side’s chances fell to their in-form forwards, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, who went into the semi-final having scored a combined eight goals in five matches, but were uncharacteristically profligate against Barca.

With the away side still trailing 1-0, the former failed to even test Marc-Andre ter Stegen when played through delightfully by Jordan Henderson, while the latter somehow contrived to miss a near open net to hand his side a consolation strike and, more importantly, a vital away goal.

Most people would have bet on the pair putting either chance away, but it wasn’t meant to be, and the Reds now face the herculean task of reversing a three-goal deficit at Anfield. Nevertheless, if any side has the courage and nerve to mount an astonishing comeback, it’s got to be Liverpool.

Their Istanbul fightback against AC Milan in 2004/05 still lives in the memory of the Anfield faithful, who also witnessed a valiant turnaround against Borussia Dortmund in the Europa League quarter-final in Klopp’s first season in charge. Having played out to a 1-1 draw in Germany, they trailed 2-0 after nine minutes and 3-1 with an hour played, only to win the game 4-3 and advance 5-4 on aggregate.

Mohamed Salah | 2018-19 Premier League stats

Even though it may defy logic, it’ll be naive to dismiss Klopp’s side, led by an attacking force of Salah and Mane, backed up by a raucous Anfield crowd from stunning Ernesto Valverde’s side next week.

This weekend, though, sees the German take his bruised side to St. James’ Park to play Newcastle United in the penultimate gameweek of the Premier League season. The poetic nature of this compelling title race sees the Merseyside club face off with their old manager, Rafael Benitez, who will certainly be relishing the encounter in Tyneside.

The Spaniard prides himself on meticulous planning and preparation for games, often poring over DVD footage, analysis of the opponents and passing his knowledge onto his players.

According to the experienced Magpies boss: “Each game is simply the culmination of a process lasting days, based on research going back decades.”

He hardly ever goes into games without a plan, and his approach against Klopp’s counter-pressing outfit will be a clash of contrasting tactical styles.

It’ll be interesting to see how the former Reds boss schemes to contain the pair of Salah and Mane, Liverpool’s top scorers this season, in an attempt to throw a spanner in the works of their title challenge.

The league’s top scorers have netted 21 and 20 goals and counting respectively in what could still end being a historic year in the red half of Merseyside. Conversely, it could sour into a horror show if they fail both domestically and in Europe.

From the outside looking in, Benitez’s plan is likely to involve a five-man defence, three in midfield and two up top, with the second striker dropping back to make it a midfield four when the Magpies are out of possession. The home side are expected to be stationed in a deep defensive block, while the midfield and attack remain compact and organized, doing all they can to deny Klopp’s side space between the lines.

Given Salah and Mane run riot when given room, how they adapt in the North East will make for a compelling watch. Benitez’s crew have won six of their last seven games at St James’ Park too, scoring 15 times across the sextet of games, so they are anything but one-trick ponies.

If they thrive and secure maximum points against their old trainer, the title race will go down to the wire for the first time in years. It has been gripping, and has had neutrals on the edge of their seats especially in the last couple of months.

Manchester City and the Reds have successfully crossed several hurdles in the run-in, and whoever ends in second-place shouldn’t be tagged ‘bottlers’ or ‘failures’ owing to the fact they’ve given their all to claim the top prize.

Recently, Liverpool adapted their game in expectation of facing a dry, un-mowed pitch against Cardiff City to win 2-0, while City faced a similar obstacle against Burnley last time out before claiming a deserved 1-0 success.

As neither side has refused to let up, the Reds trail by a point with two games to go, and have it out of their hands. Regardless, the bare minimum they can do is win their last two, and they’ll need their rampant duo of Salah and Mane back at their best if they’re to cross another hurdle against the strategist that is Rafael Benitez.