LONDON: Liverpool have a rich history of turning on the style in Europe to make up for disappointing domestic form, but even a 2-0 first-leg lead over RB Leipzig in their Champions League last-16 tie looks precarious. Jurgen Klopp's stumbling English champions will approach tonight's second leg with trepidation -- knowing they will not even be at Anfield for the "home" match. Liverpool's dramatic exploits in European competition over the years have been fuelled by the colour, noise and energy provided by fans packed into their famous old stadium.
In 2005, Rafael Benitez's league also-rans were inspired to thrilling wins over Juventus and Chelsea before producing the greatest comeback in Champions League final history in Istanbul against AC Milan. Klopp's first season in charge, in 2015/16, ended with Liverpool a lowly eighth in the league, but they were roared on as they battled back from 3-1 down to beat Borussia Dortmund 4-3 in the second leg of their Europa League last-eight tie on their way to the final.
Arguably the greatest night Anfield has ever seen came against Barcelona in May 2019. The Spanish giants were demolished 4-0 in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, 24 hours after Manchester City landed a vital blow in a titanic title race with Klopp's men. Liverpool went on to beat Tottenham in the final to be crowned European champions for a sixth time.
But after a year of largely empty stadiums as a result of the coronavirus, Anfield's fear factor has vanished. Klopp's men had been unbeaten in 68 Premier League games at home until January, but they have now lost a club-record six in a row. Liverpool's "home" match against Leipzig will be played in the Puskas Arena in Budapest as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the same stadium that hosted the first leg. European football's governing body UEFA is determined that the show must go on -- fearful of taking another sharp economic hit.
But the unusual circumstances of this year's Champions League have robbed the competition of much of its sparkle, with various teams forced to travel to neutral venues for home matches while the public remains locked down in many countries. Without their fans at Anfield, Liverpool's Premier League title defense has collapsed. Sunday's 1-0 defeat by relegation-threatened Fulham left them eighth in the table.
Injuries have played a major role in their dramatic decline, which has left them struggling just to qualify for next season's Champions League. Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher labelled the current squad "mentality midgets" -- in sharp contrast to the "mentality monsters" moniker previously used by Klopp to describe his team.
Klopp has pointed to the unavailability through injury of captain Jordan Henderson and Virgil van Dijk as reasons for a loss of leadership. "We obviously have a lot of players who stand for mentality not on the pitch in the moment," said the Liverpool boss. But questions are beginning to be asked about his ability to summon a response from his players now the malaise has set in. "The next game is in a different competition where we didn't do too bad so far," said the German. "If we can go through, which is not guaranteed, then that could give confidence."
Klopp's lack of faith that his men can defend a 2-0 lead is revealing, with Leipzig smelling blood. Julian Nagelsmann's men are flying on the back of six straight Bundesliga wins, threatening Bayern Munich's stranglehold on German football. Leipzig dumped Tottenham out at this stage of the competition last year and Manchester United in the group stage this season. Liverpool's scalp would be the biggest given their record in the Champions League under Klopp. But as this season has clearly shown, the spluttering Reds are no longer the formidable force they were just a year ago. - AFP