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Risk and reward amid hints for City – 5 talking points from Sparta 1-5 Liverpool

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Liverpool have one foot in the quarter-finals of the Europa League after thrashing Sparta Prague 5-1 in Czechia, but did Jurgen Klopp take one risk too many?

Sparta Prague 1-5 Liverpool

Europa League Last 16 First Leg, Stadion Letna
March 7, 2024

Goals: Bradley OG 46′; Mac Allister 6′, Nunez 25′, 45+3′, Diaz 53′, Szoboszlai 94′


Surprise selection justified – almost

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - Thursday, March 7, 2024: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez (R) celebrates with team-mate Luis Díaz after scoring the second goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg match between AC Sparta Praha and Liverpool FC at Stadion Letná. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It would be fair to say that a few eyebrows were raised at a starting XI that featured more big names than might have been expected here.

Yet it could be argued that Sparta Prague showed why they deserved such respect by producing a performance that arguably merited more than the thrashing they were ultimately given.

Despite only scoring once, the hosts managed to carve out four big chances across the 90 minutes, with the Reds only clocking up five to score on as many occasions thanks to their superior quality.

With that fact ensuring the visitors effectively turned the second leg into a formality and banked plenty of confidence ahead of Sunday, Jurgen Klopp‘s selection was almost entirely justified.

That is, except for one regrettable second-half substitution…

 

Konate risk may not have paid off

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - Thursday, March 7, 2024: Liverpool's Ibrahima Konaté (L) is replaced by substitute captain Virgil van Dijk during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg match between AC Sparta Praha and Liverpool FC at Stadion Letná. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There are plenty who would suggest that any criticism of Ibrahima Konate‘s inclusion here is entirely based on hindsight following what was described as a ‘precautionary’ withdrawal with 50 minutes gone.

But, among Liverpool’s squad, the Frenchman is almost uniquely prone to suffering muscle injuries, and so surely should not have been risked here with Man City on the horizon.

A 45-minute outing might well have been understandable given Joe Gomez was required at right-back, and that Klopp frequently favours sharing the load between his two first-choice centre-backs in cup competitions.

However, the German instead opted to ask more than that of Konate, and so cannot complain about the inevitable questions that follow over whether that was a wise move in the event that the small niggle the defender felt proves to be something more sinister.

Though the update after the game did have a positive spin, with Klopp saying: “Ibou said to me when he passed me in that moment, ‘I thought if I did another sprint then it could be bad’ so he said ‘should be fine’ but we don’t know.”

 

Nunez shakes off inconsistency

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - Thursday, March 7, 2024: Liverpool's Darwin Núñez celebrates after scoring the second goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg match between AC Sparta Praha and Liverpool FC at Stadion Letná. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The huge strides taken by Darwin Nunez at Liverpool could be seen in the fact that his two goals here took him past last season’s tally of 15 despite this only being the first week of March.

Still, it is easy to forget that there have been times even during this much-improved campaign that the Uruguayan has frustrated, including going on a 12-game goalless run.

And the concern was that another barren run might follow the disruptive recent muscle injury that the striker suffered at Brentford.

Fortunately, in following up his crucial strike at Nottingham Forest by scoring two beauties here, Nunez showed that his days of such inconsistency might well be behind him.

Perhaps uncharacteristically, they came from just three shots, proving that the 24-year-old is shaking off his worst habits to become the best version of himself at perhaps just the right time.

 

Gomez set for Man City nod?

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 1, 2023: Liverpool's Joe Gomez during the Football League Cup 4th Round match between AFC Bournemouth and Liverpool FC at Dean Court. Liverpool won 2-1. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Although it sparked fears of another injury blow, Joe Gomez‘s half-time withdrawal had all the hallmarks of a planned substitution.

And, along with Andy Robertson getting the entire 90 minutes, you wonder if that is with one eye on Englishman getting the nod at left-back on Sunday.

A start against the champions certainly wouldn’t be undeserved given just how impressive Gomez has been across a number of different positions this season.

It could also be handy in terms of shutting down Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva as they look to make those trademark runs into central positions from wide on the right.

And despite speculation of a fitness issue, Klopp insisted the Englishman is fine.

 

Elliott rounds off mammoth run in style

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - Thursday, March 7, 2024: Liverpool's Harvey Elliott walks out before the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg match between AC Sparta Praha and Liverpool FC at Stadion Letná. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It would not have been possible for Liverpool to claim five wins from their last five during what has been a terrible injury crisis were it not for Harvey Elliott.

And, though the youngster may be set for a spell on the bench as a result of recent returns, he can look back on his work during this period with immense pride.

He has got through a remarkable 454 minutes on the pitch across that stint, no player has more, and never once allowed his prodigious work rate to drop.

As such, it was immensely satisfying to see him get some form of reward here in the form of a hat-trick assists that teed up an important win.