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Liverpool avoid Mario Balotelli but slick Hoffenheim are dangerous Champions League opponents

August 4, 2017 12:02 PM
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Liverpool avoid Mario Balotelli but slick Hoffenheim are dangerous Champions League opponents

There will be some relief that, for once, it wasn’t him. Liverpool swerved a reunion with Mario Balotelli by avoiding Nice in the Champions League play-off draw in Nyon on Friday, but they will have to overcome an equally testing opponent.

A return to Hoffenheim awaits Roberto Firmino, who admitted he was desperate to dodge his former club as the Reds attempt to restore themselves amongst Europe’s elite.

It will be the first official meeting between the sides, but there should be no surprises for the Anfield outfit given the Brazil international, several of his team-mates, and Jurgen Klopp have an archive of knowledge on the Bundesliga club, who also finished fourth last season.

While Hoffenheim’s positive approach should favour Liverpool’s superior attacking talent, Julian Nagelsmann’s men are formidable at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, which will host the opening leg on August 15.

They are undefeated in their last 17 home fixtures, with only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund possessing a superior record on their own turf over that period.

Hoffenheim suffered just four league defeats in total during the previous campaign and are a well-balanced team: Manuel Neuer was the only keeper to accumulate more clean sheets than Oliver Baumann, while Andrej Kramaric and Sandro Wagner contributed 26 goals between them at the other end of the pitch.

But as is seemingly tradition in the Bundesliga, they’ve surrendered their best players Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy to Bayern this summer.

While the first game will arrive with Liverpool having already tackled Watford away in the Premier League, Germany’s top flight will not have kicked off yet.

The reverse encounter is sandwiched between home clashes against Crystal Palace and Arsenal.

The Reds could have done with a less taxing obstacle in furthering their continental aspirations, but a place at the top table should never be unchallenging.

As Dortmund boss, Klopp was victorious in three of his last four clashes against Hoffenheim in all competitions. And if the Merseysiders have genuine ambitions of being a European force again, there should be absolute confidence not unease heading into the play-offs.

The tie, while tricky for the Reds, is a more daunting prospect for Nagelsmann, who has a good relationship with his counterpart. "That's Murphy’s Law,” he said of his team being pitted against the strongest competitors in the pot.

“That's a real tough opponent. But there wasn't an easy one in the draw, anyway. We are very happy to play against a special club in a legendary stadium.

"This morning I joked by saying: 'If you want to lift the trophy you also have to overcome Liverpool.' I felt that it would be Liverpool. We will give everything we have to qualify.

"I am sure, they won't drink three Scotch Whiskeys because they play us, but we are not without a chance."

Liverpool’s blueprint will have to be better both in theory and execution. There can be no excuses for not reaching the Champions League group stage for just the second time since 2009/10.


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