“Liverpool are a winning club, in their league and in Europe across various competitions.” This was what Monchi, Sevilla’s former director of football said, ahead of the 2016 Europa League final.
“I think they’ve changed a lot under (Jurgen) Klopp. I know they’ll be similarly strong next season because they’re in a transitional phase. Right now, they’re at a level that everyone expects of them.
“Liverpool’s squad is very well made and they have many alternatives. Tall players, strong, fast, talented and very physical.”
Monchi, like a lot of people at associated with Sevilla in their last Europa League final, has left the club. Their manager in that game, Unai Emery, followed Monchi out the door and joined PSG. In fact very few members of the squad remain some 16 months on – only four, to be precise.
They are goalkeeper David Soria, Daniel Carriço, Sergio Escudero, Steven N’Zonzi and Ever Banega. The latter left and re-joined the club after a single season with Inter.
Two European champions but very little recent success in the Champions League
For all of Sevilla’s success in the Europa League, five titles to be precise, they’ve yet to make their mark in the Champions League. This season represents the first time they’ve qualified for the Champions League in back-to-back campaigns.
Last season, under Jorge Sampaoli, many tipped them as dark horses but they came unstuck against a rigid Leicester City. And it’s on English soil where they’ve suffered the most. They haven’t won a game in England and have lost all three away meetings with Premier League sides in Europe’s top tier competition.
For Klopp’s side the story is different. The magic of the Champions League is an adrenaline shot which inspires them to find another level. The glory nights at Anfield are like folklore and many teams around the world are desperate to experience it.
Even Monchi himself admitted as much. But, for all their ‘five times’ hand waving, it’s been 12 years since they last won the trophy. Not really good enough.
Sevilla aren’t up to full speed yet
However, in saying all that, this is the ideal time for Liverpool to play Sevilla. Eduardo Berizzo did a wonderful job at Celta Vigo but is still trying to work out his best eleven and is heavily rotating the side in the league.
Losing Ever Banega meant they were without their creative spark in midfield but he will be available tonight. It’s a Sevilla side in a transition, as is often the case at this stage of the season, and they won’t be anywhere near their best at Anfield.
The key man in Sevilla’s line-up is a name familiar to Premier League fans in Steven N’Zonzi. He’s much more than the midfield destroyer he was deployed as at Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City.
The Frenchman is a cool customer on the ball and glides away from opponents with his long strides. Comfortable in defence or attack he’s the embodiment of Sevilla. If he’s running the show then Liverpool are in trouble.
What Leicester City did, particularly in the second leg at the King Power Stadium, is shackle N’Zonzi. If you put pressure on him, close him down, then he’s susceptible to mistakes. There’s a confidence to N’Zonzi’s play but if you stifle his rhythm, force him to pass backwards as opposed to forwards, then you shut down the main cog in Sevilla’s engine room.
Best form of defence for Liverpool is to attack
Another potential advantage for Liverpool is how strong their attack is. With Philippe Coutinho easing his way into the first team picture, he’ll add yet another facet to the forward line. Sadio Mane, fresh after his Karate Kid audition, will offer blistering pace which will unsettle a relatively slow Sevilla backline. On the other side of the pitch is Mohammed Salah.
The Egyptian has hit the ground running at Anfield and already has three goals to his name. Those two wide man, either side of Roberto Firmino, are tough for any defence to deal with.
“Over there it’ll be a little more difficult, they’re at home. They are approaching their best but maybe with a doubt or two after the tough defeat to City.” That’s what the hero of the previous Europa League final between the two sides, Coke, told ABC Sevilla.
He believes that Sevilla are capable of going to Anfield and putting in a good performance, similar to last season when they drew away to Juventus in Turin.
And for Liverpool it’s important that the defeat to Manchester City sparks them into life. They were outplayed, outfought and outclassed but mostly after they were reduced to 10 men. Once those players step out onto the pitch tonight and hear the roar of the crowd they need to put the memory of City behind them.
If they start brightly, as we expect they will, an early goal would calm the nerves and maybe open the floodgates. The longer it takes to break Sevilla down though, the more the pressure will build and if Anfield goes quiet then Sevilla’s confidence will rise.
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Whatever the result, both should progress to the knockout rounds
It’ll be interesting to see how the Spaniards line up. With Wissam Ben Yedder being the man of the moment up front for Sevilla, expect him to start.
Their other striker option, record signing Luis Muriel, looks set for a place on the bench. He’ll be desperate to impress the travelling fans and what better way to do that than by silencing the Kop? Easier said than done, admittedly.
Overall not a lot should be taken from the opening results in the group stage. When you look at the group’s other teams, Spartak Moscow and Maribor, it’d take a collapse of epic proportions for either Liverpool or Sevilla to miss out. Getting out of the group stage is just the start though as both look to stake a claim for being Champions League contenders again.