LIVERPOOL travel to Hoffenheim for the first leg of their Champions League playoff round on Tuesday.
Jurgen Klopp’s men will want to put themselves in a good position ahead of the second leg at Anfield, but it won’t be easy against last season’s fourth-placed Bundesliga team.
Which battles could be key to the Reds’ progress? Our friends at Football Whispers look at five areas where the match could be won or lost.
Kerem Demirbay vs Jordan Henderson
Last season was seamless transition into the German top flight for Kerem Demirbay.
He joined Hoffenheim from Hamburg in a reported £1.5million deal in July 2016 after spending the previous two seasons on loan in the second division in Germany with Kaiserslautern and Fortuna Dusseldorf.
The 24-year-old scored six times and really lived up to the expectations given to him when he was coming through as a youngster at Borussia Dortmund.
David Wagner, now Huddersfield Town boss, was the manager of Dortmund’s reserves when Demirbay left for Hamburg in 2013.
“I would have loved to keep him,” Wagner said at the time.
“I also know that Michael Zorc made him a good offer and Klopp told him of his prospects at the club in a long talk.”
So former Dortmund boss Klopp will be more than aware of Demirbay’s talents, and as he comes up against Jordan Henderson, it could be a major area of the game to look out for as the Liverpool captain looks to get the better of the midfield battle.
Andrej Kramaric vs Dejan Lovren
Leicester may have had big hopes for Andrej Kramaric in January 2015 when they paid a then club-record fee of £9million to bring in the forward, who was also subject of Chelsea transfer rumours at the time.
But after arriving from Rijeka, the Croatian was a massive disappointment for the Foxes, playing in just two league games in their Premier League title-winning campaign.
That saw him shipped out to Hoffenheim on loan, a deal that became permanent last summer.
While he struggled in England, he’s been flying in Germany, scoring 18 goals in all competitions last season.
Against Watford, Liverpool looked decidedly shaky at the back and Kramaric will look to take advantage of that.
Dejan Lovren came under criticism from Ian Wright on Match of the Day for his performance against Stefano Okaka.
“He goes right up against Lovren and he was too strong for them,” he said.
“They couldn’t deal with him and I was surprised they didn’t utilise that even more.”
If Kramaric can do the same, Liverpool will be worried.
Nico Schulz vs Mohamed Salah
Liverpool may have looked weak in defence against Watford, but in attack it was a completely different story.
The front three of Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino caused the Watford defence no end of problems, and they will be a handful for anyone.
Salah was involved directly in two goals in the second half at Vicarage Road after a disappointing first half.
Reflecting on his performance after Sunday’s game, Klopp said: “He was a bit too much on the wing, we spoke about it (at half-time) and in the second half he was much better.
“He needs to get in the space behind and it’s easier for us to play football.”
And if he can get in the space behind Nico Schulz, Hoffenheim’s wing-back, he could be very dangerous indeed.
But if he has an ineffective match, it may end up being a frustrating night for Klopp and his team.
Nadiem Amiri vs Georginio Wijnaldum
A product of the Hoffenheim youth system, talented Nadiem Amiri was a crucial part of their fourth-placed finish last season.
He played in 33 of a possible 34 matches, scoring two goals and providing four assists.
The 20-year-old’s form was so good that he signed a new deal running until 2020 this summer.
“Considering the list of clubs that showed interest in signing Amiri in recent months alone one can realise what this contract extension means for the club,” Hoffenheim sporting director Alexander Rosen said when the midfielder put pen to paper.
“This is another indicator that [Hoffenheim] can provide an exciting challenge with international football, excellent infrastructure, and an extraordinary coaching staff for a young, ambitious footballer.”
While Georginio Wijnaldum has impressed going forward since arriving at Liverpool, he may be asked to do some defensive work to stop Amiri.
? Hoffenheim v Liverpool: Best bets ?
?DIAMOND: Hoffenheim to score from a set piece, 2/1 (add to your bet slip) – “Hoffenheim are the set-piece kings of the Bundesliga”
➡NEXT BEST: Liverpool to draw with Hoffenheim, 12/5 (add to your bet slip) – “This is no gimme for Liverpool”
?LONG SHOT: Serge Gnabry to score first, 13/2 (add to your bet slip)
Kevin Vogt vs Roberto Firmino
Hoffenheim like to play out from the back and Kevin Vogt is a former midfielder who can pick a pass out, so Firmino using Liverpool’s gegenpress to shut him down could help the Reds massively.
The new Liverpool No.9 is returning to his former club and will be desperate to score and show his old team what they are missing.
The Brazilian spent four and a half years in Hoffenheim, scoring 38 Bundesliga goals in 110 appearances.
He’s become more of a central striker since arriving at Liverpool, and his old team-mates will find an even more complete player than the one that left in the summer of 2015.
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