Jurgen Klopp says Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez will be involved for Liverpool when they play Bologna on Thursday.

The Reds step up their preparations for the forthcoming Premier League season with two 60-minutes matches against the Serie A side.

The central defensive duo made their long-awaited returns from injury against Hertha Berlin last time out, playing the final 21 minutes of the 4-3 defeat.

Van Dijk had not played since suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury against Everton in October 2020, while Gomez played his first minutes since damaging a tendon in his left knee while on international duty with England the following month.

Klopp is pleased with the progress the pair are making and is confident they can get more minutes under their belts against Bologna.

"Hopefully, yes. That's how it looks in the moment," he told the official club website. "I want to make it really clear, we push nothing. 

"We know exactly how they feel – how they really feel and not what they tell us because they obviously are desperate to play again. 

"It looks good, this morning [it was a] normal training session. Sometimes in moments, we swap Virgil and Joe a little bit so maybe the intensity doesn't get too high, but in general it looks really good. 

"How many minutes on Thursday, I don't know but there will be some minutes for sure."

Klopp may also have Alisson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino available for selection.

All three have returned from their extended break after helping Brazil reach the Copa America final, which they lost 1-0 to Argentina.

With Liverpool launching their Premier League campaign away at Norwich City on August 14, Klopp admits the returning trio's preparation time is far from ideal.

Nevertheless, the German said they could feature against Sinisa Mihajlovic's side, who finished 12th in Serie A last term.

"The players who play international football never have enough time; that was always like this," he added.

"You never have enough time to train and stuff like this – a week, two weeks before the season.

"[The Brazilian players] will start tomorrow with training properly with us.

"Maybe on Thursday in our two 60-minute games against Bologna, we can involve them already. I don't know yet – maybe 15, 20, 30 minutes. We have to see how they look exactly."

These have been some tough months for the grand old city of Liverpool, the men in red losing a Premier League title first and then the waterfront being stripped of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

The cause of the latter bitter blow might be boiled down to a rush to regenerate. United Nations cultural blazers were ultimately at odds with city chiefs over the merit in complementing an elegant Victorian window on the world with shiny towers, sharp-angled business premises and apartment buildings. There's an arena too, and, perhaps the straw that broke the camel's back, a gleaming new stadium for Everton.

Goodison is going, and perhaps UNESCO is privately upset to see another of Archibald Leitch's greatest hits bite the dust.

Quite what has gone wrong at Liverpool Football Club is far from as easily deciphered, and if we were to ignore the wild journey that has led to where they stand today, perhaps there would be no real cause for worry in the first place.

Third in the Premier League last season means the Champions League awaits the Reds in 2021-22. And third after first place in 2020-21 does not sound like the worst of outcomes, a solid enough follow-up season, if just a touch deflating. Owners Fenway Sports Group will know another truckload of UEFA coinage is heading for the bank vaults, and Jurgen Klopp has been able to carry out a tweak or two to his squad, with more surely to come.

Yet with four weeks of last season remaining, Klopp's team were toiling in sixth place, the manager showing signs of feeling pressure as his team scrambled for the form that would conceal the imperfections of the previous eight months.

Ahead of the new campaign, Stats Perform looks at how Liverpool, with a long-awaited championship now long out of their system, could evolve as they bid to close the gap to the Manchester giants, United and City.


RED PERIL, OR RED HERRING?

With a little hindsight, might the drama that encircled Liverpool last season have been overblown? Anyone can lose 7-2 at Aston Villa, right?

And six consecutive home defeats... well, that occasionally happens to the best teams, doesn't it? Were three of those Anfield raiders – Brighton and Hove Albion, Burnley and Fulham – perhaps better sides than our memories recall?

Weren't Everton due a win on the other side of Stanley Park?

And above all, didn't it seem like Klopp essentially had the situation under control?

Sorry to come across all 2 Unlimited, but no, no, no-no, no-no.

Liverpool are coming off a honker of a season that they rescued rather too easily as their nearest top-four rivals waved them through. Wins over Southampton, Manchester United, West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace in May papered over quite substantial cracks.

"In the harder moments you can show the most and we really stuck together all the time," Klopp said.


WHAT MADE THE NEAR-INVINCIBLES SO FALLIBLE?

The injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are an obvious but credible answer here. Klopp took flak for not having top-class back-up to his back-up defenders, and when captain Jordan Henderson suffered a groin injury in the Everton defeat in February that was his season over too.

A strong spine turned, if not to jelly, then to something suddenly highly penetrable.

Opta data shows Liverpool gained 19 points from a losing position last season, just as they did when landing their first Premier League title in the 2019-20 campaign.

That looks admirable, and only Manchester United (31 points) and Leicester City (20) hauled back as many from being in deficit, but Liverpool also dropped 15 points from a winning position, when in the title year they let just five slip away in such a circumstance.

In the Premier League, Liverpool's players were involved in 3,736 duels in 2019-20 and a near-identical 3,729 in 2020-21. (Opta defines a duel as a 50-50 contest for the ball.)

But tellingly, Liverpool's success rate in such duels slipped from 50.55 per cent in the championship-winning campaign to 47.78 per cent.

And if that sounds like a small dip, consider that only two teams in the past two Premier League seasons have won a lower percentage of duels across a season: Bournemouth in 2019-20 with a 47.69 per cent rate, and Sheffield United with 46.55 in 2020-21. Both those sides were relegated.

It feels telling, and Klopp will want the pendulum to swing back above 50 per cent in the new campaign. Marginal gains in this area can have an enormous impact.

Mid-table Everton (52.92 per cent) and Aston Villa (52.58) led the way last season, and both had spells where they threatened to snatch a top-six place, while champions Manchester City were third, followed by Leicester and Manchester United.


NAME NAMES!

Among defenders, only Leeds United's Luke Ayling (279) made more ball recoveries than Andy Robertson (229) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (258).

There, that's a good thing.

Less good: among defenders who played at least five games, Liverpool's Alexander-Arnold (25.49 times), Neco Williams (23.59) and Robertson (20.39) stood first, second and fourth on the list of Premier League players who lost the ball the most often per 90 minutes.

Rhys Williams, who like namesake Neco had more opportunities in the top flight than he might have anticipated, achieved the Premier League's highest duel success rate among all defenders (76 per cent from nine appearances; 38 of 50 duels).

That sounds promising for the future, and Nat Phillips was another game stand-in, winning a defender's league-high 7.92 duels per 90 minutes.

Phillips stood sixth on the list of the most duels contested per 90 minutes by a defender too (13.05), and here's a statistic that won't have passed Klopp by: Liverpool won 11, drew two and lost only two games when Phillips started in the Premier League.

That is a massive 73.3 per cent win rate, and they went 9-7-7 without him (39.1 per cent win rate).

The 24-year-old was the Reds' player of the month for March, and perhaps Klopp would do well to keep him around the first team, even with Matip, Van Dijk and Gomez back for the new term.


A SOFT CENTRE?

Thiago Alcantara's first season with Liverpool proved largely anticlimactic and Klopp will expect more from the Spaniard in the new campaign. Goodness knows, with Georginio Wijnaldum now at Paris Saint-Germain, Klopp needs to find something extra in midfield, which has begun to look increasingly like the team's problem area.

Liverpool were hindered last season by losing Fabinho to a central defensive role at times, and it seems imperative Klopp has the Brazilian and Thiago forging an alliance in the coming months.

In the 21 games where skipper Henderson featured, he made 8.86 ball recoveries per 90 minutes, which put him fifth overall among midfielders and top among the squad's engine-room stars.

Henderson, playing the role of disruptor and creator, also attempted the most throughballs of any Liverpool midfielder (averaging 0.21 such passes per 90 minutes) and Klopp must long for a genuine playmaker who might get closer to the numbers posted by the likes of City's Kevin De Bruyne (0.58 per 90 minutes), United's Bruno Fernandes (0.35) or even Everton's James Rodriguez (0.41).

Liverpool did not have a midfielder in the top 20 for open-play goal assists per 90 minutes among those to have played at least 15 games, with Curtis Jones having 0.15 per 90 to sit in a tie for 21st on the list. When the assists from the flying full-backs dry up, as they rather did in the league last season, Liverpool need to do better in midfield.

MARGINAL PAINS

Liverpool had more big chances – where a player should reasonably be expected to score – than any other team in the Premier League last term. Being more clinical could have made it a very different season.

They only scored from 37.61 per cent of those 109 opportunities, however. Pep Guardiola's City stuck away 44.34 per cent of their 106 big chances and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United netted 45.74 per cent of their 94 such openings. The Manchester giants duly finished first and second.

Liverpool also had more passes into the final third (2,508) than any other side, so clearly they are doing a lot right, yet when their players see the whites of the opposition goalkeeper's eyes, their aim has not been as precise as would be ideal.

Their overall shot conversion percentage tumbled from 14.38 to 11.18 – from the league's highest rate in 2019-20 to only the 11th-ranked in the 2020-21 campaign.

Mohamed Salah scored 22 times with a shot conversion rate of 17.46 per cent, and Klopp would settle for a repeat of that in 2021-22, but Sadio Mane's form in front of goal has left a lot to be desired in the league.

Mane's conversion rate dipped from an impressive 23.38 per cent in the title campaign to a wholly underwhelming 11.7 per cent in the hangover season, with the addition of Diogo Jota to Liverpool's attacking ranks not proving perhaps the spur to the existing strike force that the manager might have expected.

Roberto Firmino's 9.09 per cent strike rate was tolerable in the championship year because so many others were banging goals in, but with those drying up by comparison in 2020-21, nine goals from a conversion rate of 10.84 was not what Doctor Klopp ordered.


BETTER CALL FOR SAUL?

Like just about every club, Liverpool have been hit hard financially by the coronavirus pandemic and it remains to be seen if there is a significant transfer kitty for Klopp, who has already invested by bringing in promising young French defender Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig.

Atletico Madrid's LaLiga-winning midfielder Saul Niguez is a rumoured target and would be a handy acquisition, but the Spaniard has also been linked with United.

Should Saul go to Old Trafford, joining Jadon Sancho and the expected addition of Raphael Varane to Solskjaer's ranks, then the team in red challenging City for supremacy next season would seem more likely to be the record 20-time English champions, and not Liverpool.

But the numbers here tell us that Klopp's team are perhaps not as far away from City as the 17-point gap from last season may suggest.

Just like a rock star's guitar, Klopp's heavy metal football only truly works when the tuning is right, and when the entire band is in sync.

Last season, Liverpool without Van Dijk were like Black Sabbath without Ozzy, Motorhead without Lemmy. They were not themselves but just about got away with it.

With the talismanic Dutchman and the inspirational Henderson over their injuries, there is just that nagging feeling that those treasured big hits could get another airing.

Defending champions Brazil secured top spot in Group B in dramatic fashion, claiming a last-gasp 2-1 win over Colombia as controversy marred the Copa America showdown.

Colombia were left seething when Brazil substitute Roberto Firmino's 78th-minute equaliser came after the ball deflected off referee Nestor Pitana in the build-up – the official allowing play to continue rather than call for a drop-ball, leading to lengthy protests from Colombia.

Brazil compounded Colombia's frustrations after Casemiro struck in the 10th minute of stoppage time as the Selecao extended their winning streak to 10 games on Wednesday.

Colombia had been holding on to a 1-0 lead after Luis Diaz's spectacular 10th-minute volley, ending Brazil's six-game run without conceding a goal.

Reinaldo Rueda's Colombia took the lead in stunning fashion, when Juan Cuadrado whipped in a cross from the right flank, finding an unmarked Diaz – who fired home a sensational bicycle volley at the back post in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil, who went into the game having scored more goals (seven) and had more shots on target per game (eight) than any other team at this year's Copa America, struggled to create chances in the first 45 minutes.

Neymar had his first sniff on goal in the 55th minute from a direct ball he volleyed tamely on target, while he shot wide from outside the box shortly after.

In the 66th minute, half-time substitute Firmino produced a clever pass for Neymar to round goalkeeper David Ospina, only to hit the post off-balance from an angle.

Brazil found an equaliser with 12 minutes remaining, although it was controversial after the ball hit the referee in the lead-up, with play allowed to continue, rather than a drop-ball.

Tite's Selecao immediately pushed the ball wide to substitute Renan Lodi, whose cross was glanced in by Firmino, with Ospina unable to prevent it from creeping under him.

With virtually the last kick of the game, an unmarked Casemiro headed in Neymar's corner at the near post, sparking mass celebrations.

Coronavirus again cast a shadow over the 2021 Copa America as Venezuela's preparations for their opening match versus Brazil were thrown into chaos.

The tournament has been moved from Colombia and Argentina to Brazil amid political unrest in the former nation and a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the latter.

Brazil has also suffered horribly during the pandemic, although calls to postpone the tournament have been resisted despite some players from the host nation voicing their opposition.

Now Venezuela's attempts to snap a run of eight winless Copa America encounters with the Selecao – who have won six in that streak - look set to be compromised after news that 12 of their travelling party have tested positive for coronavirus.

"The health department was notified by CONMEBOL that 12 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation, including players and coaching staff, tested positive for COVID-19," the secretary of state for Brasilia said in a statement, with the match set to take place at Estadio Nacional in the Brazilian capital.

 "They are all asymptomatic, isolated in single rooms and are being monitored."

The lack of any public statement on the matter from either CONMEBOL or the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF), means it is unclear how many of the 12 are players.

The Athletic reported at least five players, including captain Tomas Rincon had tested positive, with local reports in Venezuela suggesting a flight for 14 replacement players had been chartered.

Teams named provisional squads of up to 60 for the tournament to mitigate against the potential effects of COVID-19 outbreaks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Roberto Firmino

Firmino might have endured a mixed season as Liverpool ceded their Premier League crown, but Brazil boss Tite will be hopeful the forward rises to the occasion as he did on the way to glory in 2019. Firmino's five goal involvements (two goals, three assists) were more than any other player in the competition.

 

Venezuela – Yangel Herrera

In Rincon's expected absence, plenty of onus will fall upon Herrera's performance in Venezuela's engine room – assuming, of course, that he is available himself. Contracted to Manchester City, Herrera is one of the Premier League champions' loan army, having spent each of the past three seasons with New York City, Huesca and Granada respectively.

In LaLiga last term, he averaged 2.3 tackles and 10.2 duels won per 90 minutes for Granada – the latter statistic placing him second in the division among midfielders to have played 20 or more games.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil have gone 20 Copa America’s games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W12 D8). Their previous defeat was a 3-1 loss to Peru in 1975.
- Indeed the Selecao have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted, with an overall record of W26 D12 L2 – the other reverse coming versus Paraguay back in 1949.
- Venezuela's quarter-final exit against Argentina in the 2019 Copa America ended a three-match unbeaten run in the competition (W1 D2).
- This will be Venezuela's 20th Copa América appearance, the fewest of any CONMEBOL nation.

Liverpool's late-season charge continued as they moved into the Premier League's top four thanks to a 3-0 win away at Burnley.

The Reds claimed a fourth successive win to further boost their hopes of sealing Champions League qualification, Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Phillips getting goals either side of halt-time at Turf Moor.

Jurgen Klopp's side had needed a last-gasp winner from goalkeeper Alisson to beat West Brom on Sunday, but there was no need for any late drama this time, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain firing in a late third.

The hard-fought result sees them leapfrog Leicester City on goal difference and means a victory on the final day at Anfield on Sunday against Crystal Palace will see them in Europe's premier club competition next season.

Liverpool had been wasteful in a first half that appeared set to end scoreless until Firmino popped up in the 43rd minute, providing the finishing touch to Andy Robertson's cut-back cross.

The Brazilian was one of those to miss a clear opportunity as the visitors too often failed to trouble full debutant Will Norris in the Burnley goal. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were also guilty of failing to hit the target, while Thiago Alcantara dragged wide.

Phillips had seemingly missed his chance to score a maiden goal for the club when blazing over before the break, but he made no mistake when getting his head on the end of Mane's inviting cross seven minutes into the second half.

The defender used his head to good effect inside his own penalty area as Burnley pushed hard for a response, retreating onto the line to prevent James Tarkowski's set-piece header going in.

Instead, it was Liverpool who grabbed the third goal of the game, Oxlade-Chamberlain thrashing in a left-footed drive just seven minutes after coming on as Norris was beaten at the near post.

Jurgen Klopp believes dwindling confidence in front of goal is at the root of Liverpool's ongoing struggles this season, as opposed to bad luck.

Although their active defence of the title has long since ended, Liverpool could formally end their stint as Premier League champions by claiming a much-needed victory over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

If Manchester City beat Crystal Palace on Saturday and their neighbours lose to Klopp's men, Pep Guardiola's side will be crowned kings of England for the third time in the past four seasons.

That development might not be overly surprising, but the distance from which Liverpool have watched it unfold – having been the main counterpoint to City's pretentions of dominance over the previous three years – certainly has been.

The Reds are sixth in the table, four points shy of fourth-placed Chelsea with five games remaining heading into the weekend, meaning anything other than three points against United would make their chances of Champions League qualification increasingly remote.

Long-term injuries to key defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have taken a significant toll but a misfiring attack has been under the spotlight over recent weeks.

Firing blanks

In three consecutive draws against Real Madrid, Leeds United and Newcastle United, Liverpool had 54 shots – including efforts blocked, as per Opta – and scored twice.

"We had a really detailed look at all the situations that we created over the last seven or eight games just to get an overview," Klopp told Sky Sports. "It is not unlucky. There are moments where we are unlucky. But if you are unlucky so often there must be something else.

"Sometimes it sounds a little boring, but we know we have to improve. The one thing we have to keep working on is the finishing. We have to finish the situations off. We have created [many] chances in the last three games and scored twice. That is obviously not enough.

"The performance around that shows you that something was right in the game. We had really good spells, but the important moment is the last moment. We cannot expect it to change overnight but we will not stop working on it.

"It is not exactly the football of last year, maybe, but it is all fuelled by that one moment. Either you score or you don't score. We have to keep working. We don't have to change inside out, 360 degrees or whatever. We only have to improve and to make it click."

Mane and Firmino under pressure

Such problems were unforeseeable at Christmas after Liverpool routed Palace 7-0 to go clear at the top of the table.

In the 19 Premier League games since, Liverpool have scored 19 times despite amassing an expected goals (xG) figure of 30.3. An xG underperformance of -11.3 is comfortably the worst in the division over this period.

Mohamed Salah has scored seven times in the top flight since December 25 and remains in the hunt for the Golden Boot on 20, one shy of Harry Kane. However, his attacking allies Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have managed three and one in 17 appearances apiece since then.

Salah and Mane are converting those opportunities Opta classes as "big chances" at 23.5 and 23.1 per cent success rates over the period in question, with Firmino languishing on 12.5 after netting one out of eight.

Compared to the trio most likely to feature in United's forward line this weekend, the lack of efficiency is stark. Since Christmas Day, Marcus Rashford has put away 37.5 per cent of his big chances, with Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani snaffling 40 and 50 per cent respectively.

"We can see the boys are not confident enough in the moment," Klopp said. "They don't use their first touch. They want to make sure the ball is in the right position and then it is too late, the defender jumps in.

"There are a lot of things. After not scoring for a while, you do not use some situations for finishing. That is normal because we are not flying."

Big six appeal

Funnily enough, the Untied game might be just what Liverpool need.

Shelling points to the likes of Leeds and Newcastle, due to late equalisers from Diego Llorente and Joe Willock, has been symptomatic of their season.

In games between the Premier League's 'big six' this term, Liverpool have won five, drawn two and lost two to claim 17 points – a level-best points haul from those matches alongside City.

"It is about talking to them, helping them to find solutions," Klopp added. "You can do that in training. All that is fine but then the game starts and the first ball does not go in, the second ball does not go in and the third ball does not go in. It is like a wound that is bleeding again.

"That is what you can see on the pitch. But a missed chance is information. You have to use it. The things we did to get in the position were right, so do it again but just adapt a little bit. Keep going. Stay positive."

Jurgen Klopp selected Diogo Jota in attack and dropped Roberto Firmino to the bench for Liverpool's Champions League quarter-final first leg at Real Madrid.

Jota came on with the game goalless and netted a brace in Saturday's 3-0 Premier League win at Arsenal.

Although Firmino was initially on the field along with Jota, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane at Emirates Stadium, the Brazil forward had to be content with a place on the bench in the Spanish capital.

Jota's brace took him up to 12 goals for the campaign in his debut season at Anfield, level with Mane and double Firmino's six, despite injury restricting him to 1,269 minutes on the field.

Firmino has played 2,661 minutes, meaning he averages a goal every 443.5 minutes, with Jota's one per 105.75 minutes the best ratio among all of Liverpool's forwards. Salah's 26 goals in 2020-21 have arrived at one every 128.7 minutes.

Naby Keita has endured another injury-impacted season with the Reds, but Klopp gave him the nod in midfield alongside Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum, with ex-Barcelona man Thiago Alcantara among the substitutes.

Liverpool were set to confront a patched-up Real Madrid back four in a rematch of the 2018 final, with Raphael Varane's positive COVID-19 diagnosis putting him on the sidelines with skipper Sergio Ramos and right-back Dani Carvajal.

Lucas Vazquez, Nacho and Eder Militao were chosen as the men to step in alongside first-choice left-back Ferland Mendy.

Liverpool will welcome Roberto Firmino back from injury for Saturday's key Premier League match against Arsenal.

Firmino has been out of action for a month due to a knee injury, last playing in the home defeat against Chelsea on March 3.

The champions sit seventh going into the away clash with Arsenal, five points adrift of the top four, though they hope a win at Wolves prior to the international break will prove a turning point after a miserable run of results.

"Bobby [Firmino] is back," Klopp said at his pre-match news conference on Friday, when he was also asked about other injured players such as Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk.

"All the others not and I have no idea about the Euros. Nothing has changed.

"They are all in the place they should be at the moment. I don’t have bad news or brilliant news. If they are ready then they are ready. They are in rehab process.

"Jordan is not here at the moment, he cannot train. He will train in the next days or weeks, for sure."

In the absence of Firmino, Diogo Jota recovered from his own injury to score against Wolves and help the Reds to secure Champions League progression against RB Leipzig.

He followed up that form with three goals in two caps for Portugal.

"Diogo is in a good moment," said Klopp. "It's good. These are the real benefits of an international break. 

"Shaq [Xherdan Shaqiri] played well for Switzerland. Thiago played a good role in the Spanish games.

"So there are benefits, but not a lot. Scotland played well, Wales surprise three points - a lot of things were going on. 

"I will speak to [Curtis Jones after his red card for England Under-21s].

"You don't want to see these things after a game but we all know in a moment when you lose a game, and it meant a lot to Curtis, who played really good game - if the other team didn't do anything there would be no reaction.

"We have a tough programme, it is always a challenge coming back from international break. You have one session to bring it all together. There is no guarantee that it always works. 

"We were here, they are back, train again and go again."

Arsenal won this fixture 2-1 last season and are looking to beat Liverpool in consecutive home league games for the first time since April 2015.

The Reds have won just two of their last 20 Premier League away games against Arsenal (D9 L9), while the Gunners have lost only one of their last eight home Premier League encounters.

Arsenal, though, have gone eight top-flight matches without a clean sheet and have conceded the first goal in four of their last five league games.

Unusually, Liverpool have fared better on their travels than at Anfield for much of this season, with their last five league victories all coming on the road.

Klopp added: "Let’s go for it and have a look at the end. We don’t have a lot of points to waste any more. We will not hesitate and we will just go for it.

"We are not living in dreamland, but if you ask me what do I wish for, let's go with all we have.

"Whoever plays away at Arsenal should never expect the points, but whatever we want, we only get if we win football games.

"Arsenal is a quality side, they have a lot of potential, quality, experience, youth, really exciting team. 

"The Premier League is a tough league. If you are not at the top level, you get punished. 

"It’s a tough one, but should be tough for Arsenal as well. Our only intention is to be exactly the opponent Arsenal doesn't want."

Last season's beaten finalists Paris Saint-Germain are red-hot favourites to advance to the Champions League quarter-finals when Barcelona visit the Parc des Princes for the second leg of their last-16 clash on Wednesday. 

Mauricio Pochettino's side hold a three-goal advantage after Kylian Mbappe's hat-trick helped them seal a stunning 4-1 win over Barca in the first leg last month.

Liverpool are in a strong position to join them in the last eight, with Jurgen Klopp's side taking on RB Leipzig at Anfield after running out 2-0 winners in the reverse fixture. 

The German club, though, might just fancy their chances of causing an upset against the Premier League champions, who have lost six of their last eight matches across all competitions. 

We used Opta numbers to preview the two clashes.

Paris Saint-Germain (4) v (1) Barcelona: Blaugrana out to make history

Barca will have to make history if they are to book the most unlikely of last-eight places, with no side ever having progressed in the competition after losing the first leg at home by a margin of three goals.

The game marks the first Champions League meeting between the sides at the Parc des Princes since February 2017, when the Ligue 1 team recorded a 4-0 victory. 

That remains PSG's biggest margin of victory in a home knockout game in the competition, while it is also Barca's joint-heaviest defeat in a knockout game away from home in the competition (also 0-4 against Liverpool in May 2019 and against Bayern in April 2013).

While the onus is on Barca to score freely, do not be surprised to see the hosts do just that themselves. They have netted at least once in each of their last 22 Champions League games at home (61 goals), in a run that dates back to December 2015. 

Spearheading their attack will be Mbappe, who will become the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the Champions League if he scores (aged 22 years and 80 days), taking the record from Lionel Messi. 

Barca talisman Messi has only ended on the losing side in four of the 75 Champions League games he has scored in. However, half of these have come against PSG – the first-leg defeat and a 3-2 loss at the Parc des Princes in September 2014.

Should Messi and his team-mates slip to defeat it will mark the first time the LaLiga giants have lost three Champions League matches in a row.

Liverpool (2) v (0) RB Leipzig: Reds have the edge over German opposition 

With a two-goal advantage from the first leg, Liverpool will expect to continue their run of never having been eliminated from a Champions League knockout tie after winning away from home in the first leg.

The game will be the 21st time the Reds have hosted German opposition across all European competitions. They are unbeaten in the previous 20 of those (16 wins, four draws), scoring 52 goals and conceding just nine.  

Central to their chances of extending that run will be two players who have enjoyed themselves in the Champions League in recent seasons. 

Since the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Roberto Firmino is one of only three players in double figures for both goals (15) and assists (11) in the competition, along with Messi and Mbappe. 

Mohamed Salah, meanwhile, is Liverpool's top scorer in the competition, netting 23 goals in 40 games for the Reds. If he scores a brace in this game, he will reach 25 goals for an English club in the second-fewest appearances, following Ruud van Nistelrooy for Manchester United (27).

If Leipzig are to have any chance of causing an upset they will need to improve dramatically on their last away clash with an English side, the Bundesliga club suffering their heaviest defeat in European competition against Manchester United at Old Trafford back in October (0-5).

Only four of their 12 wins in the Champions League have been achieved by more than a one-goal margin (33 per cent).

However, the last time they won by two or more goals in the knockout stages of the competition was against Spurs last season (3-0 in the last-16 second leg).

Diogo Jota gets a first Premier League start in 2021 as one of seven changes made by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp for the home game against Fulham on Sunday. 

Having suffered a knee injury in December, Jota made a return to first-team action on Thursday, though his appearance off the bench could not help the Reds avoid going down 1-0 to top-four rivals Chelsea at Anfield. 

The Portuguese forward is named in the starting XI to take on relegation-threatened Fulham, with Roberto Firmino ruled out due to what Liverpool announced to be a "minor knock". 

Klopp named Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Thiago Alcantara and Sadio Mane on a strong bench, with the second leg of the Champions League last-16 tie against RB Leipzig to come on Wednesday. 

The decision to leave Fabinho out means Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams start together at the heart of the defence. Neco Williams, meanwhile, takes over from Alexander-Arnold at right-back. 

James Milner and Naby Keita come into the Liverpool midfield, while Mohamed Salah – who did not hide his disappointment at being substituted against Chelsea in midweek – starts too, along with Xherdan Shaqiri. 

Lionel Messi is reportedly open to staying at Barcelona, but the LaLiga giants have work to do.

Messi, 33, stayed at Barca after sensationally requesting to leave ahead of this season.

But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner is out of contract at the end of the campaign, leading to more talk over his future.

 

TOP STORY – MESSI OPEN TO BARCELONA STAY

Messi is open to staying at Barcelona and is prioritising the sporting project over the economic offer, according to Marca.

The report says Barca strengthening their squad could convince Messi, who has been linked to Manchester City.

Signing City forward Sergio Aguero, Borussia Dortmund star Erling Haaland, Chelsea's N'Golo Kante or Liverpool's Roberto Firmino would help Barca's position in their bid to re-sign the superstar.

ROUND-UP

- With Real Madrid linked with a move for Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, such a deal could lead to questions over Eden Hazard. AS reports Mbappe joining Madrid could lead to an exit for Hazard, who has struggled with injuries since joining the LaLiga giants.

- Staying at Real Madrid and there is uncertainty over Raphael Varane's future. AS reports Madrid are prepared to listen to offers for Varane ahead of next season if they cannot agree to a new deal with the defender, who is out of contract in 2022. Manchester United have been linked with Varane, who is valued at £60.7million (€70m).

- Harry Kane has again starred for Tottenham this season. The Telegraph reports the forward, who is contracted until 2024, is set to stay at Spurs for at least another campaign.

- Amid suggestions Sevilla defender Jules Kounde is too expensive, Manchester United could look elsewhere. Eurosport reports Villarreal's Pau Torres may be a more realistic target due to his reported release clause of around £43m (€49.6m).

- Alexandre Lacazette seems set for an Arsenal exit. The Mirror reports Monaco are targeting the forward ahead of next season.

Tuesday sees the return of the Champions League as the first two last-16 ties get started, including arguably the pick of the bunch; Barcelona v Paris Saint-Germain.

While we have been robbed of the Messi v Neymar narrative after the Brazilian was ruled out for four weeks with an adductor injury last week, there should still be plenty of talent on display.

Messi can still expect to be the focus, given the strong transfer links to PSG, while the Parisians will be hoping for a hint of revenge for the famous 'Remontada' of 2016-17.

Also in action on Tuesday are Liverpool and RB Leipzig, with the Germans' home leg taking place in Budapest due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions imposed in Germany.

Ahead of the two tantalising fixtures, here are the key stats for both games…

Barcelona v PSG

4 – Barca and PSG last met at this same stage in 2016-17, when the Catalans became the only team to ever qualify for the next round in the Champions League after losing by at least four goals in the first leg. They won the second leg 6-1 in Camp Nou.

14 – Barca are hoping to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the a record 14th consecutive campaign. They were last eliminated at this stage in 2006-07 by Liverpool.

10 – While PSG have only one away win against Spanish opposition (Valencia) in the Champions League knockout phase, Barca have never lost at home to a French side in 10 such games in this competition.

2 – Antoine Griezmann has more yellow cards (two) than he has Champions League goal involvements (one assist) for Barca at Camp Nou in seven appearances.

1 – Kylian Mbappe has scored only one goal in his nine Champions League knockout games with PSG. He had found the net six times in six knockout games with Monaco.

RB Leipzig v Liverpool

0 – RB Leipzig have played 22 matches in the Champions League – none have ended goalless.

8.9 – While Liverpool are known for their effective pressing, Leipzig are even more aggressive. The German have allowed their opponents just 8.9 passes on average before intervening defensively in the competition this season, the lowest figure of any side in 2020-21.

1 – Roberto Firmino has scored only one goal in his previous 16 Champions League games. That came in last season's last-16 second leg against Atletico Madrid.

6 – Leipzig wing-back Angelino has contributed three goals and three assists in the Champions League this term – Alvaro Morata (six goals, one assist) is the sole Spaniard with more goal involvements in 2020-21.

45 – Liverpool were the only team not to concede a single goal in the first 45 minutes of matches in the group stage.

Trent Alexander-Arnold scored for the first time this season and laid on an assist as Liverpool ended their Premier League goal drought with a 3-1 victory at Tottenham.

The champions had not scored in their previous four games amid a five-match winless run in the top flight, but ended their slump at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Thursday to move four points behind leaders Manchester City in fourth place.

Roberto Firmino opened the scoring on the stroke of half-time after Son Heung-min had a goal ruled out for offside and Alexander-Arnold added a second shortly after the restart.

Spurs suffered a big blow when Harry Kane could not return for the second half after having treatment on both ankles, but Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg halved the deficit within two minutes of Alexander-Arnold’s strike.

Sadio Mane gave Liverpool, who lost Joel Matip to injury at the break, breathing space as Tottenham's eight-match unbeaten run in all competitions came to a halt in a major setback to their hopes of challenging for the title.

Mane wasted a glorious chance to give the Reds an early lead when he fired wide from close range and that looked to be costly when Son finished clinically soon after, but the goal was ruled out for offside following a VAR check.

Son shot straight at a grateful Alisson on the counter-attack before Mane was twice denied by Hugo Lloris, as the Reds dominated possession without being able to end their top-flight goal drought.

The breakthrough came just before the interval, though, fit-again captain Jordan Henderson – playing as a centre-back with Fabinho ruled out – piercing the Spurs defence with a brilliant ball over the top for Mane, who set Firmino up for a tap-in.

Jose Mourinho made a double change at half-time, with Kane and Serge Aurier replaced by Erik Lamela and Harry Winks, while Nathaniel Phillips took Matip's place at the heart of Jurgen Klopp's back four.

Alexander-Arnold doubled Liverpool's lead two minutes into the second period with a clinical right-foot finish following a mistake from Lloris, who palmed Mane's shot into his path.

Hojbjerg quickly got Spurs back into the match with a rasping long-range drive before referee Martin Atkinson disallowed a Mohamed Salah goal for handball against Firmino.

Liverpool were not to be denied a third goal after 65 minutes, though, the excellent Alexander-Arnold whipping in a cross that Joe Rodon failed to deal with and Sane punished the defender by lashing home with his left foot.

No one at Liverpool will ever rush to take comfort from any defeat to Manchester United.

But, amid the rubble of Sunday's 3-2 loss at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the FA Cup, there were signs the Premier League's most-celebrated frontline of recent times were clicking back into gear.

Mohamed Salah scored both Liverpool goals and will hope to end a top-flight drought stretching back to December's 7-0 shellacking of Crystal Palace when Tottenham host the defending champions on Thursday.

Perhaps more significantly, each of Salah's strikes were laid on by Roberto Firmino.

Aside from trying to work out who on earth will play at centre-back on any given week, it feels like Jurgen Klopp has spent more time on public defences of the Brazil centre-forward than anything else this season.

The Reds boss claimed he would be "embarrassed" to list all of Firmino's qualities and said "I can't help these people, sorry" when asked to explain the player's worth to the doubters.

Later in November he labelled Firmino "a complete footballer", not to mention a pretty impressive musician, who "plays something like 12 instruments in our orchestra".

However, since the symphonic grandeur of their display at Palace, Liverpool have not been able to move for bum notes in front of goal.

Firmino has not found the net in any competitive game since that trip to Selhurst Park, and former Anfield favourite Jamie Carragher singled him out after the 0-0 top-flight draw against United earlier this month.

"I'm still confident Sadio Mane and Salah will start scoring goals again," he said on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football. "I must say I am worried for Firmino."

Again, Klopp went in to bat for the former Hoffenheim man. But is it fair for the 29-year-old to repeatedly receive such scrutiny? Conversely, is Klopp motivated by anything more than loyalty to a diligent servant by this point?

Bobby's strike rate not dazzling

Firmino's five Premier League goals this season have come from 46 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 6.9. He is yet to score in the Champions League.

Under-performing his xG is not exactly new territory for him. When widely hailed as a key member of a dominant title-winning team last season, his nine league goals from 99 shots came in well below an xG of 14.

When Spurs and Liverpool met at Anfield last month, Firmino netted a 90th-minute winner to snatch a 2-1 victory. These are the sort of "heavy goals" that will endear a player to a manager.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, when the Salah-Mane-Firmino trident first came together, 16 of Firmino's 41 Premier League goals have been winners, or 39 per cent.

Mane (56) and Salah (86) have scored more often and netted more winners (17 and 26 respectively) but their percentage of decisive goals is slightly lower at 30.

Salah heads into Thursday's game as the Premier League's top scorer with 13 goals – one ahead of Spurs duo Harry Kane and Son Heung-min on 12 apiece – and 19 in all competitions.

Given goalscoring has never been hailed as Firmino's forte, perhaps it is Mane's drop off inside the penalty area that should be a greater cause for concern.

The Senegal international's six Premier League goals have arrived from 52 attempts with an xG value of 7.4. Amid a career-best run of form on the way to the title, Mane's 18 top-flight goals comfortably outstripped an xG of 13.7.

Diogo Jota's perceived importance to Liverpool has skyrocketed during his injury absence and the former Wolves man's nine goals across the Premier League and Champions League from an xG of 4.9 give him a solid argument to be picked ahead of either Mane or Firmino when fitness allows.

Old Trafford sea change?

As mentioned above, Firmino showcased a key facet of his game at the weekend by laying on both Salah strikes and creating four chances overall – his most in a game this season.

He now has five assists in all competitions this term, set against four for Salah and three from Mane.

However, he has created notably fewer chances – 28 compared to Salah's 41 and Mane's 40.

Indeed, using Opta's expected assists (xA) metric, we can see that in the Premier League and Champions League combined, Firmino has created a lower quality of chances cumulatively.

The trio have three open play assists apiece in those competitions, although Salah's open play xA is four, with Mane's 2.9 and Firmino's 2.3.

Heavy metal football for the multi-instrumentalists 

Outside of their goal involvements, the collective work rate of the Liverpool front three, their willingness to do the dirty work and set the tone for Klopp's gegenpressing machine has become a trademark.

Firmino is particularly celebrated in this regard. Per 90 minutes, his tackles (1.24 > 1.06), interceptions (0.3 > 0.24) and instances of winning possession in the final third (1.08 > 0.82) are all down on last season. With 1.52 tackles per 90 and 0.4 interceptions, he is being outperformed by Mane in these aspects.

However, in the context of a condensed Premier League schedule placing extra strain on players, this is not an especially alarming drop.

Liverpool's high turnovers per game are down to 8.9 from 10.7 last season, meaning they have swapped positions with Manchester City at the top of those rankings.

They remain second to City in terms of shot-ending high turnovers. Pep Guardiola's team have managed to maintain their level in this regard, averaging 2.2 high turnovers per game compared to 2.1 in 2019-20. Liverpool's per 90 drop is from 1.7 to 1.3.

Regarding pressed sequences per game, Klopp's men are holding steady as the best team in the league – 17.5 compared to 18.1 from the season gone.

They are also allowing slightly fewer passes per defensive action (PPDA) in the Premier League, with 10.1 in 2020-21 compared to 10.3. On this metric, possibly due to poor early-season form and some atypically cautious performances that followed, City have dropped from 10.1 to 11.4.

Creating and hustling

Of course, the Liverpool front three's work off the ball would not be so notable without them doing the business once it's at their feet.

Looking a little deeper than goals and assists data, Salah and Mane ranked in the Premier League's top 10 when it comes to involvement in open play sequences ending in a shot before the start of this midweek round.

Firmino came in 11th with 89 involvements, behind Mane on 100 (sixth) and Salah with 102 (fifth). Of those sequences to yield goals, Salah has featured in 12, compared to nine and six for Mane and Firmino respectively.

The Brazilian has suffered from some poor finishing at the end of his involvements. The cumulative xG for the sequences he played a part in is 12.3, slightly better than Mane (11.6) and Salah (10.8).

An Opta metric where Firmino certainly lives up to his reputation is the seven times he has started a period of possession that ended in a shot this term. That puts him joint seventh in the Premier League overall as the highest ranked striker in a category where Rodri, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and N'Golo Kante are among the high flyers – defensive midfielders whose primary role is winning the ball back to get their teams on the front foot.

The pain of Kane - the perfect hybrid

The temptation before Thursday might be to point towards Kane as the centre-forward Liverpool would love Firmino to be. The England captain's incredible alliance with Son demonstrates being a scorer or a provider is not an either/or equation.

Kane has 12 Premier League goals and has laid on 11 more. Firmino's best assist tally over the course of an entire top-flight season was eight en route to glory last time around.

Unflattering comparisons are easy to reach for but, as the numbers above demonstrate, Firmino and Liverpool's front three as a collective have not fallen too dramatically from the performance levels that made them the most feared attack in Europe.

Virgil van Dijk's injury, influential midfielders being deployed in defence in his absence and the knock-on in terms of both midfield balance and the effectiveness of attacking full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson look like more plausible explanations for Liverpool's malaise.

Even so, a fifth goal against Tottenham and a third consecutive winner in this fixture would be the best way to stop Klopp making another weary argument in Firmino's favour.

On a day when Donny van de Beek hoped to show why he deserves more minutes for Manchester United, up stepped Bruno Fernandes to show why that simply isn't happening.

The eye-catching selection of Van de Beek ahead of Fernandes for this FA Cup clash of giants at Old Trafford was all about "rotation", according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United's manager clearly felt his team could combat a faltering Liverpool team without their star man, albeit leaving him on the bench in case of emergency.

"Donny needs to be playing games as well and it's a big game for Donny to come into," Solskjaer told the BBC.

Van de Beek has not started a Premier League game since he was hauled off with United trailing at half-time at West Ham in early December, and he might not be starting any soon either given how this game transpired.

A 66th-minute switch of the Portuguese for the underwhelming Van de Beek proved pivotal, and the delightful free-kick from Fernandes that settled an absorbing game 3-2 in United's favour was one that had been conceived on Saturday.

"I think he stayed about 45 minutes after training yesterday shooting free-kicks, so I was quite confident that he was going to hit the target," Solskjaer said.

Solskjaer, the erstwhile supersub, knew the calibre of replacement that was up his sleeve, and the rotation worked in a roundabout way. Are we looking at more proof that United's once-maligned Norwegian boss is actually a tactical master?

Liverpool's season, meanwhile, takes another negative turn.

Donny fluffs his big chance

With a mere 18 passes and 23 touches, Van de Beek was peripheral in a midfield where Paul Pogba shone and Scott McTominay fought for every ball.

The former Ajax man had a glorious early chance to stamp his mark on the game when he burst into space on the right and looked sure to dart towards the penalty area, as Edinson Cavani waited for a pass in the centre.

But no. Van de Beek paused and decided to go backwards, and the chance was gone.

This game was a world away from the Anfield snore draw seven days previously in the Premier League, yet Van de Beek largely let it pass him by.

By the time Fernandes cracked his sublime winner into the right corner, Van de Beek must have been wondering when such an opportunity will arise again.

Salah shows he must start

Like Fernandes, Salah has seen his form and contribution questioned in recent weeks, and just as United's match-winner dispelled such criticism, so did Liverpool's main man.

After all the talk about front threes, and which of these sides had the most deadly attacking trio, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp went with a two-man strikeforce, Salah and Roberto Firmino linking up and Sadio Mane on the bench.

Both Salah and Firmino had been substitutes on Thursday for the defeat to Burnley, but they were a combination that United struggled to contain at times here.

Salah struck twice, the first a sublime chip, and Firmino set up both. The Brazilian has now assisted Salah for 18 goals during their time together at Liverpool, the most any player has set up another during Klopp's reign.

Unlike Firmino and Mane, Salah has exceeded his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, with eight non-penalty goals from an xG of 5.3, and if Liverpool are to resurrect their season, the bench is surely no place for the Egyptian.

Glorious Greenwood

Mason Greenwood has not scored in the Premier League since that West Ham game, when he helped United turn their half-time deficit around and earn a 3-1 victory.

Here he looked lively from the early stages, albeit with one too many lollipops and insufficient tasty final product until he cancelled out Salah's opener.

The way the 19-year-old ended an 10-game barren spell spoke volumes of his belief, with Marcus Rashford's sweeping pass over the Liverpool defence finding his wing twin on the right and allowing Greenwood to thump a low shot past Alisson.

With Rashford also on target, this was quite a day to savour for the hosts.

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