COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
In a sense, Liverpool’s 3-0 victory over Watford might have been exactly what Jurgen Klopp needed as the perfect preparation for his side’s critical penultimate Champions League group-stage affair against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
In what has become somewhat of a rare sight for the Reds this season: all three of the title challengers’ forwards played a part in the away side’s goals.
Roberto Firmino released Sadio Mane with a lovely through ball down the left, before the Senegal international showed quality when it mattered to assist Mohamed Salah for the opening goal just before the clock hit 70.
The Brazilian was then fouled by Adrian Mariappa for the free-kick that led to Trent Alexander-Arnold doubling the Merseysiders’ lead. The third, just before the end of the second-half, saw Firmino, who hadn’t scored a league goal since mid-September, head home after Ben Foster saved a Mane effort from inside the box.
Truthfully, the final score flattered Klopp’s side, owing to the Hornets' gritty performance in Hertfordshire, but they edged it due to the effectiveness of their frontmen, and the German will hope for more of the same from the triumvirate in Paris.
Given Firmino has found it tough to get going this season, the goalscoring burden may well fall on a resurgent Salah and recuperating Mane as the Reds seek a way through their daunting quest. Neither has found the back of the net so far on the continent, and simplistically, one could link Liverpool's away blues to the impotency of their frontline.
The 1-0 defeat in Naples against an assertive Napoli side was arguably one of the worst performances witnessed from a Klopp side in Europe, and it was no surprise the aforementioned pair struggled as well.
The Reds could only muster four attempts at goal - with a couple from Salah and none from Mane - without forcing David Ospina into a save. The duo lost possession of the ball more times than all their other teammates combined on a night that served as a reality check after an unbeaten league start.
It should’ve been worse for the five-time European champions, and they can perhaps count themselves fortunate to have only escaped the San Paolo with a slender defeat.
The aforementioned loss might have passed as a one-off, on account of the strength of the opposition, but matchday four’s 2-0 defeat against Red Star Belgrade was downright shocking.
The Serbian giants took full advantage of the Merseysiders' individual mistakes by scoring two quick-fire goals before the half hour before electing to defend astutely for the rest of the game.
Red Star ceded lots of possession to the more-fancied visitors and defended deep in high numbers to make penetrative passes difficult for the Reds.
Neither Salah, who hit the woodwork with one of his several attempts, nor Mane could beat Milan Borjan in goal, which further served as a source of frustration for traveling supporters who saw their luckless run on the road continue.
If cast back further, one would realize the Belgrade defeat was the third successive away European game that’d resulted in a loss, having seen them get beaten 4-2 at Roma in last year’s semi-final, before the Napoli failure. On the other hand, when put into context, some might say the Rome defeat didn’t matter as they progressed to the final.
Indeed, the most recent defeat to the side propping up the table has only thrown the group wide open, and they now travel to Paris knowing they need to get a result or risk having the most nerve-racking of final games against Ancelotti’s side on matchday six.
They will be well aware of needing to break their duck on the road if they are to have a fighting chance against Thomas Tuchel’s side, and that responsibility falls mainly on Salah and Mane.
Performances have greatly improved in the last few weeks for the Egypt international following his underwhelming start to the campaign.
Statistically though, the forward’s return in the opening weeks of this season mirrored last year’s start, which provoked a fair bit of scorn at what some labeled an exaggeration of the forward’s ‘loss of form’. However, when looked at with a keener eye, it’s hard to deny that Salah’s demeanor has been much more positive in recent weeks than at the start of the season.
For Mane, it’s a bit more complicated.
He’s been struggling with illness since the Watford win at the weekend and it remains to be seen just how fit the forward will be for the PSG game.
Having scored four goals in the opening month of the season, he has only hit the back of the net three times since September.
The Senegal international has had to endure some really scathing criticism from critics who accuse him of being too individualistic in several instances, while knocking his decision-making as well.
While Klopp may resist temptation to play the forward from the start, this could be the perfect game to put a lid on fault-finders’ jibes.
The current crop holds the unenviable record of being the first Liverpool side to lose three away games on the spin on the continent, and the prospect of increasing that to four should prompt an improvement against PSG.
Indeed, their African superstars will surely need to deliver in the Reds' visit to the French capital if they're to prevent an embarrassing early exit from the competition.