Andy Hunter in Porto
Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp says of the best teams in Europe: ‘I know already we can compete with them. Probably the strongest team in Europe at the minute is Manchester City. We’ve played them twice and that was at the highest level.’ Photograph: Manuel Araujo/EPA
Jürgen Klopp has declared Manchester City the strongest team in Europe but believes their recent defeat at Anfield is proof Liverpool have no reason to fear anyone in the Champions League.
Liverpool play their first knockout game in the competition for nine years at Porto on Wednesday and in confident form judging by the appearance of Klopp and Roberto Firmino at the pre-match press conference. “I don’t know if Porto are going to be afraid,” said the Brazilian forward at Estádio do Dragão, “but we are going to make their life difficult and make them suffer.”
Klopp bridled at a suggestion that Liverpool, the highest-scoring English team ever in a Champions League group stage this season, could emulate Rafael Benítez’s side of 2005 and win the trophy for a sixth time. “I don’t like talking about the round after the round you are playing, in fact I hate it,” he said. “I only answer nicely now because I am friendly and we are in public, but if someone asked me about the round after the round in private I would leave the room.”
The Liverpool manager was more bullish, however, on his team’s ability to compete with every formidable foe remaining in the competition. He said: “I know already we can compete with them. Probably the strongest team in Europe at the minute is Manchester City. We’ve played them twice and that was at the highest level. PSG is a little bit different but I don’t look at them, I only know already that if we meet them we could beat them.
“That’s how it is but it’s not important. We are here in Porto, that’s the only thing. We can make one big mistake in life – of course, we as a team would never do that – but I know when the draw came out it was like: ‘Thank God, Porto’. But now Porto is here and it’s quite a hurdle, a nice hill we have to go over. It’s interesting. We are confident because of playing good football through the group stage and now we are here; the last 16.
“Everything is good about being here; the planes are better, the stadiums are better, the cities are better, even the food is better. So it is cool. You feel it when you come to the press conference – usually I don’t like it but in a press conference in the Champions League I think it’s a little bit nicer. It’s really exciting and a strong side – I met Iker Casillas a few minutes ago and you think: ‘Oh yes! The goalkeeper is not too bad as well!’”
The Portuguese league leaders have won 12 of 14 games since their last appearance in the Champions League, a 5-2 win over Monaco, with their only defeat in that sequence coming on penalties against Sporting Lisbon in the cup. Their main concern before Liverpool’s visit is the disruption to the defensive unit that would usually be charged with containing Klopp’s attack. Ivan Marcano has not played since 24 January owing to a thigh injury, his central defensive partner Felipe is suspended and the defensive midfielder Danilo is out with a calf problem.
Marcano, however, has declared himself fit. “I am ready if the coach decides I’m going to play,” said the Spanish defender, who described Liverpool as “a complete team”. The Porto manager, Sérgio Conceição, claimed last month it was a boost to see his Champions League rivals sell Philippe Coutinho but played down the significance of the transfer on Tuesday. “They have also bought some more great players so they are still a very strong side,” he said. It is stretching it to say Liverpool are as strong without the player Barcelona bought for £142m last month but the threat posed by Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané has not diminished in his absence.
Firmino said: “Coutinho is a great player and when he left that put a greater responsibility on everyone else to perform but it is our job to deal with that responsibility.”
Only Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar and Edinson Cavani have been more prolific as a pair this season than Firmino and Salah, who are responsible for 49 Liverpool goals between them, compared to 56. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, with nine, has scored more Champions League goals than Firmino this term, the Brazilian’s seven including one in the qualifying round against Hoffenheim.
Klopp said: “I don’t think Roberto has stepped up but maybe it is more obvious [what he contributes] because his situations are not overshadowed by Phil Coutinho’s situations. He’s a very important player and he doesn’t always have to be the standout player. I don’t think he is underrated, not anymore. People with a football brain judge him right. That’s how it is.”