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Is Joel Matip good enough for Liverpool’s double aspirations?

1:09 AM WAT 16/03/2019
Joel Matip, Liverpool
The Cameroonian centre-back is stepping into a key role at a critical juncture of the season

Cameroon defender Joel Matip has been receiving praise for his performances over the two legs of Liverpool's Champions League triumph against Bayern Munich.

However, while the defender may have overcome his own goal to help the Reds past the Bundesliga giants, is he of sufficient calibre to help Liverpool realise their Premier League and Champions League ambitions this term?

This season has been a challenging one of the German-born defender.

By mid-December, he had started just three of Liverpool’s 16 Premier League games as the emergence of Joe Gomez pushed him down the pecking order, while a collarbone fracture also ruled him out for six matches.

The Liverpool supporters – many whom have been critical of Matip’s displays since joining the club – could surely not have foreseen such a turnaround in his fortunes.

With Gomez needing ankle surgery, Matip has started the last eight Premier League matches, helping the side to clean sheets against Bournemouth, Manchester United, Watford and Everton.

His domestic form has been strong, but his displays on the continent have been especially impressive.

For example, he impressed over the full 90 minutes as Liverpool beat Napoli 1-0 in their final group game, when the Reds needed a 1-0 result or victory by two goals to progress to the knockout stages.

For the first leg against Bayern Munich at home, Jurgen Klopp’s men were without defensive lynchpin Virgil Van Dijk, so Matip was partnered by Fabinho, a defensive midfielder.

Matip would need to lead the defence in a game where avoiding the concession of an away goal was top of the agenda.

He looked the part, regularly stepping out of the backline to make critical interventions, and passed forward particularly well, especially with an early line-breaking pass to Roberto Firmino.

His 42nd-minute clearance from Serge Gnabry’s cross was another telling intervention.

He made three inceptions, four clearances and won three aerial duels on the night as Bayern failed to have a shot on target. Robert Lewandoski made only 11 successful passes that night and had just a single attempt at goal.

However, Matip also had to thank Alisson for saving him from own-goal ignominy by blocking with his face after the defender deflected the ball towards the Reds’ net.

The pair also had a worrying first-half moment as Matip tried to play a risky flick after Alisson’s pass sold him short.

There is no doubt that many Liverpool fans have had their heart in their throat when watching Schalke defender in action.

For the second leg, Van Dijk was back to partner Matip and the duo did well on the night.

Although the latter turned a low cross into his own goal, and made one errant first-half pass which nearly left his side wide open, he recovered excellently.

Joel Matip | 2018-19 Premier League stats

By the end of the game, Matip had made five tackles and three interceptions.

Lewandowski had clearly positioned himself on Matip, considering him to be the weak link, but instead, the Poland striker spent much of the game complaining about rough treatment to the referee.

He again managed just a single shot at goal all evening, and had been bullied out of the tie.

Whilst Van Dijk deservedly drew praise for his performance, Matip was outstanding in the second half.

He can be forgiven for the own goal, which was difficult to avoid with Bayern players ready to pounce on the cross behind him.

Going forward, it is crucial for there to be greater consistency in the 27-year-old’s displays.

Too often, he has looked rattled in games or suffered from a lack of concentration when facing forwards who look to run in-behind. Against a target man, he is usually more comfortable and sure of himself.

Next up for Liverpool is Fulham, where they face Aleksandar Mitrovic, the sort of forward who Matip tends to deal with well.

Whether he can excel against more nimble-footed forwards in the challenges to come is still a major concern.

Matip has two huge months ahead of him to show he has the quality to start for a side chasing football’s biggest prizes.

If he finds himself exposed, and if the fans get on his back, Klopp may be looking for a new central defender in the summer.