Privately, Jurgen Klopp surely laments Liverpool’s luck in the Champions League this season, writes Graham Ruthven.
Indeed, the Anfield side have had it tough in Europe’s most prestigious club competition, first drawn in a group alongside AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Porto and then paired with Inter in the round of 16 despite winning six from six games to this point.
Liverpool should be wary of the Italian champions. Inter are a high-quality outfit and have continued to demonstrate so after the exit of Antonio Conte last summer. In fact, some might argue the Nerazzurri are now better equipped to succeed in the Champions League with Simone Inzaghi bringing a greater creative edge to his team.
It’s in the centre of the pitch where Inter will try to gain an advantage over Liverpool. This is where they are strongest and where Inzaghi has made the biggest difference since arriving at the San Siro nearly eight months ago. Conte’s team also boasted a formidable midfield, but Inter now use their central unit in a more rounded way. Under Conte, Inter’s midfield was the dynamo through which their counter attacks flowed. This is still the case, with the Italian champions one of the most devastating teams around in quick transition, but Inter now have the ability to control games. This isn’t necessarily something Liverpool’s midfield can boast.
The summer signing of Hakan Calhanoglu has given Inter a method of breaking open low defensive blocks. The Turkish international, lured from rivals AC Milan on a free transfer, is averaging a club-high 2.5 key passes per 90 minutes having notched six goals and eight assists in 21 Serie A appearances. For good measure, Calhanoglu is also a set-piece threat.
Nicolo Barella and Marcelo Brozovic give Inter a midfield platform as strong as any other in the sport right now – the former is an energetic, irrepressible number eight with the latter a deceptively mobile yet resolute anchor. Fabinho will offer Liverpool protection, but there is a better balance to Inter’s midfield unit as a whole.
Fabinho on Inter Milan:
“This will be a really tough game. Inter right now is the best Italian team, that's why they are up near the top in the league. They play good, they are a strong team. They play together maybe four or five seasons, some players.” #awlive [liverpool echo] pic.twitter.com/H2CndZEsqO
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) February 14, 2022
Of course, Liverpool’s system is set up to harness their full backs as creators. When Klopp devises a plan to crack open an opponent, he looks to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson over his central operators. Inter, who most commonly play with a back three, must be wary not to leave two much space on the wings.
Inter’s back three could also give Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah all the freedom they need to decide the match. The Liverpool pair do their best work in the space frequently left by opponents between the central defenders and the full-backs. Inter push Denzel Dumfries and Ivan Perisic so high up the pitch as wing backs that their defensive trio could simply have too much ground to cover.
Conte’s departure from the San Siro at the end of last season could have derailed Inter. However, they have absorbed not only the loss of their manager, but the loss of Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, two players who were integral to what Conte had built. In Lukaku’s place, Edin Dzeko has filled the void while Dumfries gives Inter forward thrust down the right side just as Hakimi did.
On an individual basis, Liverpool have enough in their ranks to push past Inter into the quarter-finals, but on a tactical level this is one of the most challenging match-ups Klopp and his players could have had in the round of 16. Just as Atletico Madrid were built to exploit the Reds’ weaknesses two years ago, when they knocked out Liverpool at the same stage of the Champions League, Inter could be a serious obstacle.