Liverpool will go through to the last 16 of the Champions League as group winners if they can defeat Spartak Moscow at Anfield on Wednesday (19:45, live on BT Sport).
The Reds currently top Group E, with a one-point margin over Sevilla in second. With Sevilla facing bottom side Maribor, victory over Spartak is likely to be required if Liverpool are to win the group and therefore position themselves as one of the seeded teams for the knockout rounds.
That would be the ideal scenario. The middling one would be a draw. But the possibility of a disastrous one still lingers. If Spartak were to win on Wednesday, they would move level on points with Liverpool and ahead on head-to-head goal difference. Coupled with a draw or victory for Sevilla in Maribor, it is a result that would see Liverpool eliminated.
The two teams drew 1-1 when they met in Moscow in September, with Philippe Coutinho quickly equalising for Liverpool after Fernando had given Spartak the lead. But the result didn’t tell the whole story. Liverpool dominated the shot count, created a number of good opportunities and largely prevented Spartak from reaching dangerous areas. They were unfortunate not to come away with all three points.
That match followed a familiar pattern for Liverpool matches at the time, where some combination of failing to finish the high-quality chances they created for themselves and then committing defensive errors that allowed opponents opportunities to punish them saw them win just one of eight matches in all competitions from the start of September through to mid-October.
Something seems to have clicked since then. Aside from a couple of poor defensive showings that saw them thrashed by Tottenham Hotspur and then give up a three-goal lead to draw 3-3 with Sevilla, their form has been much better. Whether it is improved accuracy in front of goal or simple statistical variance, their attack has averaged 3.3 goals per match en route to seven wins in their last 10 matches in all competitions.
The latest of those victories came in a 5-1 thrashing of Brighton on Saturday. Roberto Firmino scored twice, while Emre Can and Philippe Coutinho also got on the scoresheet before a late own goal completed the rout. Jurgen Klopp was even able to leave Sadio Mane on the bench, giving one of his key players some needed rest ahead of this Wednesday match.
Like Liverpool, Spartak Moscow are in pretty good form. Their 1-0 win away to Arsenal Tula on Friday, courtesy of a late winner from Denis Glushakov, was their fourth consecutive league victory, and they are undefeated domestically since mid-August. Their only Champions League defeat to date came in a narrow 1-2 loss away to Sevilla last month.
Antonio Conte’s former assistant Massimo Carrera has formed a competitive and well-organised side who seek to keep matches tight and rely on swift attacking breaks to score their goals. Draws home and away to Maribor have hindered an otherwise solid Champions League campaign, whose highlight was a 5-1 demolition of Sevilla in October.
Quincy Promes was on fire in that match, scoring twice and providing two assists as Spartak sliced through the Sevilla defence at will. He missed the first encounter with Liverpool due to injury, and his presence will certainly improve Spartak on Wednesday. Liverpool have previously been linked with a move and will be keenly aware of the need to contain him.
While Spartak do have their virtues, it is nevertheless difficult to see them securing the win they need to stay in the competition and all but eliminate Liverpool. They have failed to win any of their last 10 away matches in Europe (five wins, five draws) and have lost four and drawn one of their last five away to English opposition.
Liverpool’s performance in Moscow showed that they capable of opening up the Spartak defence. Spartak have a solid chance of scoring themselves but with Liverpool’s forwards all in form (particularly so in Mohamed Salah’s case), the Reds can be expected to outshoot and outscore their visitors on Wednesday and so secure their passage to the last 16.