Fabinho or Jordan Henderson?
Jurgen Klopp will have expected that he would need to make that call in a big game this season.
He probably didn’t imagine, though, that the decision would be which of them would play at centre-half in a Champions League knockout tie.
Virgil van Dijk’s suspension, coupled with Joe Gomez’s absence and Dejan Lovren’s ongoing fitness issues, mean the Reds must find an alternative solution to a sizeable problem. Joel Matip needs a partner, while Robert Lewandowski and Co. need stopping.
Klopp admitted during his side’s training camp in Marbella last week that he was planning for Bayern without Lovren, who has not played since limping off in the FA Cup at Wolves in early January. The Croatian briefly returned to training – and the substitutes’ bench – later in the month, but his hamstring has been troubling him since. He was not taken to Marbella, and even if he is deemed fit enough to start against Bayern, there is no guarantee he will last.
“In the moment we prepare the game and in this preparation Dejan is not involved,” Klopp said. “We have to find other solutions."
Those ‘solutions’ are likely to involve asking either Henderson or Fabinho to fill in alongside Matip. Liverpool have Ki-Jana Hoever, the 17-year-old Dutchman who made his debut replacing Lovren in that Wolves cup tie, while Nat Phillips and Corey Whelan joined the first-team squad in Spain last week. Neither, though, have played a competitive game for the club.
Henderson would have started at centre-back against Wolves, only to pick up a muscle problem of his own on the eve of the game. The captain featured as a right-back against Leicester recently, and his experience and selflessness would be valued if Klopp chose to move him into the backline again.
Fabinho, meanwhile, has already featured as a centre-back twice this season. He did so against Wolves, performing admirably alongside the teenage Hoever, and then again at Brighton in Liverpool’s next fixture. That time, though, he had Van Dijk alongside him.
The Dutchman’s influence since arriving at Anfield 13 months ago cannot be overstated. If eyebrows were raised at the £75million fee Liverpool paid Southampton, they were swiftly lowered. Van Dijk’s own form has been impeccable, and his presence has lifted the performances of those around him. Lovren, Matip and Gomez have all benefited from his arrival. His communication, his distribution, his positional play and his aerial ability make him one of the world's best. To the Reds, he's irreplaceable.
This will be the first ‘big’ game Van Dijk has missed since he sat out Liverpool’s league win over Manchester City more than a year ago. The saving grace for the Reds is that he will be back for the second leg at the Allianz Arena next month.
Bayern, of course, will pose a formidable threat to whoever plays. In Lewandowski they have one of the world’s best centre-forwards, a goalscorer of proven pedigree who can trouble the best defences, never mind patched-up ones. The Pole has 25 goals already this season, including eight in six Champions League outings.
Behind him, the likes of Thiago Alcantara, James Rodriguez and Leon Goretzka offer high-class supply, while the wings could feature Serge Gnabry, Franck Ribery or Kingsley Coman, though the latter suffered an injury against Augsburg on Friday and is a doubt for the game as a result.
“Bayern have 11 players who can play the last pass,” Pep Lijnders, Liverpool’s assistant manager, told Goal recently. “Even the goalkeeper can!
“That makes it hard to defend them. But we will find the right way.”
Bayern, of course, have concerns of their own. Thomas Muller is suspended, Arjen Robben is injured and Coman, who scored twice on Friday, is doubtful. Their defence, meanwhile, looks alarmingly shaky. They conceded twice at Augsburg and have not kept a clean sheet in six Bundesliga matches. They have shipped 26 goals in 22 league games so far.
Klopp, though, is not reading too much into that, stressing that Bayern still have an excellent defence - although Jerome Boateng has since pulled out of the trip with a stomach problem.
"Bayern still has the quality,” he said last week. “How can you speak about a weak defense with [Mats] Hummels, Boateng and [Niklas] Süle playing? They still have a great team.”
Still, he and his staff will know that the quality of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino should afford his side chances to open up Niko Kovac’s side. Few are anticipating a cagey, tactical affair.
Midfield, as is so often the case in such ties, will be key, and that may well influence Klopp’s decision. Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum and Naby Keita impressed as a trio last time out for Liverpool against Bournemouth, and the manager may well reason that continuity is his best option. If his side can win that battle, and in doing so prevent the supply to Lewandowski, the Reds’ own defensive issues will be masked.
Whether Henderson or Fabinho fills in, or even if Lovren makes a surprise recovery, it promises to be an intriguing clash.
With 10 European Cups between them, this is a meeting of two true heavyweight contenders. We will find out on Tuesday which of them possesses the best punch, and perhaps more importantly which of them has the strongest chin.