With Thursday night bringing the first of Liverpool’s two legs against Europa League round-of-32 opponents FC Augsburg, the German side are in failing form.
Two months after being drawn against Augsburg in the Europa League‘s first knockout stage, Liverpool head to Germany for the first leg of what promises to be an interesting encounter.
Sunday’s 6-0 win away to Aston Villa has provided Jurgen Klopp‘s side with the momentum needed to secure a result at Augsburg’s WWK Arena, and this will be magnified by the Bundesliga outfit’s recent poor form.
Liverpool find themselves in a strong position heading into this round-of-32 clash, with Augsburg struggling to find consistency in a frenetic 2015/16 campaign.
When Liverpool were drawn against Augsburg in the middle of December, Markus Weinzierl’s side were 13th in the Bundesliga, on 16 points.
Shortly after, Augsburg faced up to Klopp’s former side Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal, falling to a 2-0 defeat courtesy of goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, before securing a comfortable 1-0 league win away to HSV to round off the first half of the season.
After the Bundesliga’s winter break, Weinzierl has struggled to coax form out of his side, overseeing two draws and two defeats.
Augsburg’s last outing before Thursday night’s clash came at home to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, with the Fuggerstadter losing 3-1.
That outing saw a late Raul Bobadilla strike reduce the deficit at the WWK Arena, after a brace from Robert Lewandowski and another from Thomas Muller.
Augsburg now sit 14th in the Bundesliga table, with 21 points from 21 games, and three points adrift of 13th-placed SV Darmstadt 98.
Only six points separate Weinzierl’s men and the relegation zone, and welcoming a Liverpool side buoyed by Sunday’s 6-0 win away to Aston Villa, Augsburg face a major challenge to rewrite their form and push for progress to the Europa League‘s round of 16.
Since the winter break, Augsburg have kept two clean sheets in four games, and much of this is due to the strong performances of goalkeeper Marwin Hitz.
Despite conceding three goals against Bayern last time out, the Switzerland international is confident Augsburg can “do better against Liverpool,” and told Sport1 that he was looking for a bullish defensive performance from his side.
“We know that we can defend very well as against Bayern in the first half, and we will also show against Liverpool,” he said, hinting that Augsburg will look to damage the Reds on the counter.
If they are to manage this, they will be looking to Bobadilla to make the difference in the final third.
The 28-year-old has scored 11 goals in 25 appearances for Augsburg so far this season, and after ending a five-game Bundesliga goal draught with his strike against Bayern, will be looking to add to his tally of six in the Europa League on Thursday night.
A powerful centre-forward who likes to take the ball and drive at defences, Bobadilla should be Weinzierl’s key attacker against Liverpool.
Supporting Bobadilla in attack, left-sided Brazilian forward Caiuby will be equally as important as Augsburg look to strike on the break.
The 27-year-old complements his Paraguayan team-mate’s attacking force with typical South American flair, cutting inside to combine with his fellow attackers on the edge of the penalty area.
Caiuby could be Weinzierl’s X factor in this round-of-32 tie, providing Nathaniel Clyne with another test at right-back.
The Augsburg View
While Weinzierl is presiding over a hit-and-miss campaign for Augsburg so far, the Bavarian outfit will be relishing their two legs against Liverpool, with this season marking their first foray into European football.
Weinzierl has inspired a rapid rise in fortunes at Augsburg, having joined the club from Jahn Regensburg in 2012, masterminding progressively improved finishes of 15th, eighth and fifth in the Bundesliga.
Though this is unlikely to continue this season, this cannot be deemed a failure.
Hitz summarised the feeling in the Augsburg camp heading into this two-legged clash as one of positivity, with Weinzierl’s squad looking to build on the club’s burgeoning success.
“We are very happy mood. It is a nice game for the whole club and the whole city,” he said.
“We have four days off from league stress and look forward to the game immensely.”
The goalkeeper went on to describe this fixture as a “reward” for Augsburg’s achievements over the past three seasons:
“You can tell that it means the people very much. This is a huge highlight, it has been long in the making.
“The fans have sacrificed many hours for away games and of course the chance to see Liverpool at home or abroad, is something beautiful.
“This one may well be regarded as a reward for the past few years.”
While the club have described this clash as “the biggest game in Augsburg history,” Hitz believes Augsburg will not shy away from the immensity of the occasion, saying “we are already used to playing every week in front of a large audience.”
The road to #FCALFC continues – let's all Come Together for a brilliant night of #UEL football! #YNWA @LFC pic.twitter.com/stmRXPU2Os
— FC Augsburg (@FCA_World) February 16, 2016
Liverpool have struggled against lesser sides so far in 2015/16, instead thriving when classed as underdogs, and Augsburg could spring a surprise at the WWK Arena on Thursday night.
The confidence shown by Hitz provides Augsburg with a welcome springboard to arrest their recent poor form.
While they should head into this fixture as favourites, Liverpool must be wary of underestimating the Bundesliga’s relegation candidates.