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Liverpool need to focus on the Champions League – but how will it affect their Premier League campaign?

Liverpool, Champions League
(Image credit: PA)

Two years ago, Gary Neville suggested Liverpool should lose against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last-16 in order to concentrate on the Premier League. 

Liverpool went on to win the Champions League and finish the league season with a club record 97 points - more than 25 of the previous 26 winners of the Premier League. The notion of concentrating on one competition was good in theory but not necessary in practice.

But in this, the pandemic season, concentrating on one competition would certainly be beneficial, especially for Jurgen Klopp’s injury-ravaged squad.

The return of European action this week saw Klopp’s side enjoy a change of scenery and renewed focus with the trip to Budapest to face RB Leipzig resulting in the first win with a clean sheet in 13 games.

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Europe is where Klopp’s Liverpool have always shone. Last season’s aggregate defeat to Atletico Madrid in the last-16 was the first time a Liverpool side managed by Klopp has lost a two-legged tie in Europe.

So while some were expecting and - as Klopp suggested post-match in Budapest - “waiting for us to slip up,” it should probably have been no surprise that the Reds turned out such a professional and controlled performance to return with the ‘perfect’ European away result of 2-0.

With the second-leg not for another three weeks, it’s quite likely that Liverpool will be strengthened further by the time they face the German outfit again: Diogo Jota, Naby Keita and Fabinho should all be available - which means Jordan Henderson can be back in midfield.

Ozan Kabak, who registered his first clean sheet as a Liverpool player in the win over Leipzig, will be further acclimatised to his new team, perhaps by then having been able to form a decent understanding with Fabinho in the centre of defence.

All that means Liverpool are firm favourites to reach the quarter-finals of this year’s competition. From there, anything can happen, and nobody will want to face Klopp’s side, missing Van Dijk or not.

There is, of course, the worry that Liverpool’s continued European progress could lead to them finishing outside of the Premier League top four, but we’ve often seen with Klopp’s side that momentum - and playing ‘rhythm’ that the boss regularly mentions - means they are better when the big games arrive thick and fast.

It’s far from a case of concentrating purely on European exploits, but Liverpool’s main focus now perhaps should be on winning the Champions League… not least because it would ensure they’re in next season’s competition.

European form can provide the impetus to inspire an upturn in domestic form.

And while they currently sit in sixth place, any supporter should still be confident that a top-four finish can and will be achieved.

So we’re not quite advocating for what Gary Neville suggested in 2019, it would definitely be nice to ram home Roy Keane’s ridiculous notion of ‘bad champions’ by going and winning a second Champions League in three years - more than he won in 13 seasons at Old Trafford.

Keane’s claim that Liverpool players had not expressed a desire to 'go again’ could not be more wrong. “We will celebrate, and next season we will try to retain it,” said Virgil van Dijk on the night the title was won. “The only thing in my head and the rest of the boys’ heads is what can we do next season,” said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

This is a Liverpool squad that has repeatedly bounced back from setbacks: winning the Champions League 12 months after losing in the final, then winning the Premier League the season after their 97 points haul.

Even with the defensive injury crisis, it would be ludicrous to assume that Liverpool will not finish in the top four and not be able to win the Champions League this season. Both are still very achievable.

This is the fourth season that Klopp has managed Liverpool in Europe: they’ve reached the final in three of them, and in the other they won the league title instead.

It would be very typical of this squad to somehow overcome the obstacles - and there’s been plenty of them - of this season by going on to make the final in Istanbul on May 29.

There’s a chance that Van Dijk would be part of the squad should Liverpool reach the final, or even the semi-finals in late April/early May. The Dutch defender is back registered in the Reds’ squad and has now started rehabilitation work at their Kirkby training ground. He certainly won’t be starting by then, but being part of the squad, especially with 12 subs allowed in Europe, would provide a very welcome boost to everyone at the club.

The truth is, winning the Premier League twice in an empty stadium and being the only team to win it in the pandemic seasons would be extremely tough to take for players and supporters, but winning European Cup number seven would be much more palatable.

Klopp has spoken about the potential for a champions parade once the world is a position to allow such a celebration. That would be difficult to do after finishing fourth (or lower), but add in a Champions League win and you’d get the streets of Liverpool filled with a million fans again.

It’s a nice thought, and one which will drive on Liverpool’s players in the coming weeks. Make us dream.

Matt Ladson is editor of This Is Anfield

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