Liverpool and Bayern Munich go toe-to-toe at Anfield on Tuesday in the first leg of their eagerly anticipated Champions League Last 16 double header.
For Liverpool, the fixture represents a continental clean slate of sorts, as they look to move on from the peaks and troughs of their early-season Champions League Group Stage campaign.
Bayern Munich have toiled at times this season domestically, though the German champions have yet to taste defeat in European competition in 2018/19.
Tuesday’s fixture will be the first competitive meeting between the clubs since Liverpool’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Bayern in the 2001 European Super Cup Final.
The teams will renew acquaintances to the soundtrack of a thundering Anfield atmosphere this week, in what promises to be another European white-knuckle ride on Merseyside.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most important individual battles that are could play a key role in deciding the outcome of Liverpool’s showdown with Bayern Munich this week.
Joel Matip vs Robert Lewandowski
Liverpool face a selection crisis at centre half ahead of their clash with Bayern Munich this week. Star performer Virgil van Dijk is absent through suspension, while his first-choice central defensive partner Joe Gomez is also on the sidelines through injury.
Croatian international Dejan Lovren, who would have been first in line to slot into Jurgen Klopp’s backline, is also touch-and-go with a hamstring strain, leaving Liverpool looking desperately short in a key area of the team.
The Reds’ fitness dilemma leaves 27-year old Joel Matip as the club’s only fully-fit centre back, putting huge responsibility and pressure on the former Schalke defender to perform.
Various factors have conspired to make Matip a peripheral figure at Liverpool this season. The Cameroonian international has started just 7 times in the Premier League in 2018/19, while his Champions League involvement has been restricted to just 2 appearances.
On Tuesday, a relatively ring-rusty Matip will be pitting his wits against the Champions League’s current top scorer and favourite to win the tournament’s golden boot Robert Lewandowski. Bayern’s devastating centre forward has already bagged 8 goals in the competition this term, and the 30-year old will be rubbing his hands at the prospect of facing a severely weakened Liverpool centre.
Jordan Henderson vs Thiago Alcantara
Liverpool’s selection of crisis at centre-half should ensure that Jordan Henderson resumes his role as the anchorman in Jurgen Klopp’s midfield trio.
Classy Brazilian Fabinho has been making that position his own in recent months, though the 25-year old could find himself plugging gaps at the back as an emergency fill in on Tuesday.
Fabinho’s displacement would allow Henderson to make something of a rare Champions League start against Bayern. The England international has started only 3 of Liverpool’s UCL fixtures so far this season, and for the most part, Henderson struggled to impose himself in each contest.
On Tuesday’ Henderson could be tasked with limiting the effect of Bayern’s technical midfield wizard Thiago Alcantara.
Thiago, when he is fit, is one of Europe’s most naturally gifted footballers and his close control and passing range can open up attacking avenues against almost any team. The more often Bayern can get the 27-year old on the pitch, the more their chances of success on multiple fronts will increase (read more about Bayern Munich’s pursuit of silverware here).
Henderson has made more interceptions on average per game (1.8) than any other Liverpool player this season, and he will need every inch of his game-reading powers to stop Thiago’s expert probing.
Mohamed Salah vs David Alaba
Even though his star has shone a little less brightly this season in comparison to last, Mohamed Salah remains Liverpool’s most potent attacking weapon.
The Egyptian international is the club’s leading scorer both domestically and in Europe this season having scored 17 goals and 3 goals in the Premier and Champions League respectively this term.
On Tuesday, Salah is almost certain to deployed in direct opposition to Bayern Munich’s long-serving left-back David Alaba.
The 26-year old Austrian seems to have recovered fully from his early season wobbles to reaffirm his importance to Bayern Munich, and Alaba has a set of physical attributes that should make him a worthy antagonist for Salah.
Salah has come in for some criticism this season for an apparent willingness to hit the deck a little too easily, and it is interesting to note that Liverpool have been awarded 8 penalties this season, half of which were converted by the Egyptian.
62.5% of those spot kicks were awarded at Anfield, and with Liverpool expected to spend a large chunk of the game in and around the Bayern’s 18-yard box on Tuesday, it would come as no surprise to see another penalty given on Merseyside this week.
Roberto Firmino vs Mats Hummels
Playing as the most central player in Liverpool’s notoriously efficient attacking trio, Robert Firmino is one of the most important members of Jurgen Klopp’s team.
Firmino’s tireless workrate and intelligent appreciation of space make him a nightmare to defend against, though it is his often-underrated subtlety of touch and weight of pass around the box that are the real difference makers for Liverpool.
Bayern Munich’s sometimes leggy central defender Mats Hummels certainly won’t be relishing the job of tracking Firmino’s movement on Tuesday.
Hummels has been one of the Bavarians’ most consistent players this term, though he doesn’t come up against players of Firmino’s calibre every week in the Bundesliga.
With goals against Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City and PSG this season, Firmino has already shown a canny knack for producing on the biggest stage, and Liverpool will be banking on him making a similar impact on Tuesday.
Sadio Mane vs Joshua Kimmich
Liverpool’s rapid left-sided forward Sadio Mane is the club’s second highest Premier League scorer this season with 12 goals, though the 26-year old has so far been unable to replicate his goal-getting prowess on the continent.
Despite starting each of Liverpool’s 6 Champions League game this season, Mane has scored only once, and that solitary strike was plundered in what was undoubtedly the Reds easiest game of the tournament so far in a 4-0 win over Red Star Belgrade at Anfield.
Mane will be eager to finding his European shooting boots soon in a competition he had developed a real affinity for last season. The Senegal international scored 10 goals in 11 Champions League games in 2017/18 to help fire Liverpool all the way to the Final of the tournament.
This week, Mane will test his mettle against one of football’s most accomplished performers at right back, Joshua Kimmich. The 24-year old defender has arguably been Bayern’s best player this season, and Mane might find that his own defensive workload increasing quite a bit this week.
With an incredible 12 assists this term, Kimmich is statistically Bayern’s most creative player and their most prolific goal creator. In contrast, Mane has amassed just 1 assist during the same period. Mane and Kimmich are well matched across many parts of their respective games, and their head-to-head contest on Tuesday has the potential to be one of the most compelling individual duels of the night.