Jürgen Klopp admitted yesterday that his Liverpool side face an “all or nothing” night as they seek to reach the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in nine years.
Liverpool sit top of Group E ahead of their final game against Spartak Moscow at Anfield tonight, yet still need to avoid defeat against their Russian visitors in order to progress.
Klopp’s side had the chance to sew up qualification at Sevilla two weeks ago, but contrived to surrender a 3-0 lead and draw 3-3.
Guido Pizarro’s stoppage-time equaliser that night means that Spartak, who currently sit third, can match Liverpool’s nine points with a win tonight.
Victory would be enough for Spartak to finish above their hosts thanks to their superior head-to-head record, with the two sides drawing 1-1 in Moscow in September.
And provided Sevilla record a win away to group whipping boys NK Maribor, Liverpool would be eliminated in that event.
Klopp knows that, although his side sit in pole position, there is little room for error in a tight group and wants to see his players finally finish the job.
“A proper ‘final’. All or nothing,” he said of tonight’s game. “We know about the situation. They know about the situation.
“It is Champions League. It is always important but the last game of the group stage is most important if you have to play for something, which we obviously have.
“You only play the group stage as Liverpool to come through to the last 16. We all know if we do then we have a chance to reach the next round, but first we have to make it.
“It is a tight group. We had some influence on that. We played good games and had good results but not enough points to go through already. Now we have to finish the job.”
Though Liverpool will at best limp over the line into their first knock-out phase since the 2008-’09 season, they at least enter tonight’s match in good form.
Klopp has seen his players go eight matches unbeaten in all competitions and they enjoyed Saturday’s emphatic 5-1 victory at Brighton and Hove Albion.
A repeat performance against Spartak would not go amiss, but Klopp is focusing solely on the challenges ahead rather than the ones that have passed.
“Form is always the last game. We have to show up again and do all that stuff again,” the Liverpool manager said.
“There is pressure. We can not ignore it. We are going for something big.
“We had it against Middlesbrough (to secure a top-four place on the final day of last season) and Hoffenheim (in the play-off round). We did it quite well so far and have to do it again.
“It is a tight group. We had some influence on that. We played good games and had good results but not enough points to go through already and now we have to finish the job.
“It is always important but the last game of the group stage is most important if you have to play for something, which we obviously have. It is exciting.”
Liverpool’s progress under Klopp, while not swift enough for some harsher critics, is in line with reasonable expectations when he took charge just over two years ago.
This is only the third time the club have played in the Champions League since 2009. In 2010, under Rafa Benitez, and in 2014 under Brendan Rodgers, they found themselves dumped into the Europa League.
Klopp is taking nothing for granted, insisting: “Spartak is a good side. I cannot ignore that. They rested three or four players in the last game and still won. You can see.
“They have one more game and then three months’ break. They have their targets and we have ours.
“They are bringing back three important players – Quincy Promes, Ze Luis and Denis Glushakov. That is a fantastic side in a good moment.
“If someone has decided we are already through, then Moscow may think of the impressive win versus Sevilla.
“I see this as an opportunity. I don’t know if I can order it, but if I could order it this would be a good moment for Anfield to be at its best.”
Although he is still without centre-half Joel Matip because of a thigh injury, Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez are fit again after illness.
Klopp is expected to reunite his attacking quartet of Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane after several games of rotation.
Mane said he understood being rested, and clarified that a heated discussion with his manager at the end of the Premier League fixture with Chelsea was misunderstood.
“It was not because I was not playing. We have to respect this decision. The manager has to make it,” said Mane.
“Honestly, I won’t lie. Every player would love to play every single game, every single weekend.
“That is our job and we are still young. But we have a good team and I am happy to respect the decision of the coach. Honestly. The team is always more important.”
The Senegal forward believes that if Liverpool can get through, anything is possible once the knockout phase begins.
“It is the dream of each player in the world and it is very important for us to be in the Champions League,” he said.
“The fans deserve it, the club also. Liverpool is a big and great club; we want to play a big part in the Champions League. We want to go as far as we can.”
Klopp, meanwhile, has apologised to Brighton manager Chris Hughton for delaying a post-match handshake at the end of last Saturday’s 5-1 victory at the Amex Stadium.
There were suggestions Hughton was unhappy with Klopp’s goal celebrations, but it seems that was not the case.