The Austrian media who were expecting a bit of light-hearted banter with Jürgen Klopp at the Red Bull Arena were to be disappointed. It was not the time or place. There was confusion over where to sit alongside Jordan Henderson at the pre-match press conference, a TV light on full beam was shone directly into the face of the Liverpool manager, who then had to correct the interpreter over a mistranslation of his captain’s words. “As you can see,” said Klopp by way of apology, “I am in competitive mood already.” Salzburg should know to expect nothing less.
Liverpool find themselves on familiar ground in the final game of their Champions League group: needing a result to qualify and to keep alive hopes of reaching the final of every European competition they have played under Klopp. Two years ago they needed to avoid defeat against Spartak Moscow and won 7-0. Last season they had to beat Napoli, one of the teams who could prompt the holders’ elimination on Tuesday, and won 1-0. RB Salzburg have “nothing to lose” according to their prolific 19-year-old striker Erling Braut Haaland, who has predicted a 3-1 win for the Austrian champions and a hat-trick for himself in “the biggest game of my career so far”. Liverpool know what it takes to win.
“I am not nervous but I am tense,” said Klopp. “It is a special kind of tense. If something is important to you, you want to reach it. That is why you have the situation of stress but, over the years, you learn how to deal with it and learn that you won’t die because of these situations. I have won and lost many important games but in the last few years it has gone well. Salzburg are going in the right direction.
“I have a big interest in this club [Salzburg]. They create opportunities for young players and people in football and in other sports too. That is important. They fought for years to get into the Champions League and now they have the chance to go to the knockout stages. This situation has caused a lot of fear and whoever can overcome this fear best will make it into the next stages.”
Jesse Marsch, Salzburg’s American coach, was filmed at half-time at Anfield in October berating his team for showing Liverpool too much respect as they fell 3-0 behind and rallied to level at 3-3 before Mohamed Salah sealed victory for the hosts. “Show them we are fucking here to compete,” raged Marsch, who also urged his forwards to be more ruthless against Virgil van Dijk. That is easier said than done.
The Salzburg coach was more relaxed on Monday but not lacking in confidence. “To play aggressively, defend well and work well,” he listed of his aims for Tuesday. “Liverpool are very talented and quick and dangerous in their transitions, so we always have to be alert to what happens on the pitch. They have great strikers like [Roberto] Firmino, [Mohamed] Salah and [Sadio] Mané, so we have to follow our normal match plan. But we have some special ideas. It is crazy we have this opportunity now. We have a magic opportunity. We have more self-confidence and we are ready to make something special tomorrow.”
Confidence stems from an unbeaten league campaign – just like their visitors – and free-scoring form that has produced 96 goals in 25 matches in all competitions this season. Haaland, linked with a January move to Manchester United or Borussia Dortmund among many others, has a remarkable 28 goals in 21 appearances.
“I’m living the dream,” said the son of former Leeds and Manchester City midfielder Alf-Inge. “Matches like this are what you dream of, so I am enjoying it. I am confident that we will score tomorrow. Liverpool are a fantastic team but Salzburg are also a fantastic team and we create a lot of chances and I am confident we will attack the game.” As for his own future, Haaland insisted: “I’m just focused on my job, playing football. I try to enjoy what I do every day and go in with a clear mindset and enjoy the moment right now. My focus now is on Salzburg and me as a player. It is not hard at all. My father was a former player so he has been helping me.”
Klopp described Haaland as a “big, big talent with a wonderful future” but maintains Liverpool will have a plan to stifle the confident teenager.
“You defend a good striker by making sure he doesn’t get too many balls,” the Liverpool manager said. “He can dribble but he won’t do it from his own area and beat 10 men. We will try to avoid passes to him, cut him off from the game. We have to make it difficult. Unfortunately he is not the only good player in their team. If they beat us, they deserve to go through. If it doesn’t happen, we do. It’s as simple as that and we have 97 minutes to show that.”