Roberto Firmino was absent from Liverpool’s 5-0 thrashing of Huddersfield, and faces a race to be fit for Wednesday night’s clash with Barcelona.
Speaking after the game, Jurgen Klopp explained that Firmino had trained as normal on the Thursday, but he was unsure whether he would be fit for the trip to the Nou Camp.
Klopp described the injury as “a small tear in a very small muscle,” and was careful not to completely rule him out of being ready for the Champions League semi-final opener.
But as sports fitness expert Dr. Rajpal Brar told This Is Anfield, it could be that he misses this game but will be back for the remaining fixtures this season.
However, according to the Mirror, he may still be passed fit if he is able to train on Tuesday morning.
Firmino has enjoyed yet another highly productive season for Liverpool, scoring 16 goals and providing seven assists, and has come into a rich vein of form over the past few weeks.
His absence would be a considerable blow against Barcelona, but Klopp has a number of potential fall-back options to choose from within his squad, should he be without his No. 9 to face the Spanish champions.
Here are four options for the Reds if Firmino is ruled out.
Option A: Mane central, Origi on the left
4-3-3: Salah, Origi, Mane up front
The last time Firmino was injured, sustaining an ankle knock in the goalless draw at Old Trafford, Klopp deployed Sadio Mane in his place against Watford at Anfield, with Divock Origi filling on the left-hand side of the front three in the usual 4-3-3.
It worked a treat that night, as Liverpool ran out comfortable 5-0 victors, while Mane terrorised the Watford back line from his central berth, using his searing pace, intelligent movement and devastating finishing to superb effect.
Mane scored a brace that night, firstly powering an unstoppable header past Ben Foster from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s cross, before embarrassing the goalkeeper with an audacious backheel chip.
It was a moment of pure genius and one of the most underrated goals of the season from a player brimming with self-confidence.
His linkup play was also excellent, dropping deep at times to drag defenders out of position and open up spaces for Mohamed Salah to exploit in behind—similar to how Firmino has functioned in the No. 9 role so well for several years now.
Origi, meanwhile, put in a real shift out wide, aggressively driving at Watford’s back line on the ball, and tracking back in his own half to help Liverpool regain possession.
The Belgian international capped off a lively display with a well-taken finish in the second half, and more than justified his inclusion in the starting XI.
It’s perhaps the easiest option for Klopp to go with against Barcelona in Firmino’s absence.
He knows Mane is more than capable of performing in the central role and offering much of what Firmino usually gives the team, while it would also allow him to keep the same tactical system which has seen Liverpool put together their best winning run this season, with 10 games in a row.
Option B: Mane central, Keita on the left
4-3-3: Salah, Keita, Mane up front
This option is essentially the same as above, but with Naby Keita filling the left-sided role in the front three instead of Origi.
It’s certainly not Keita’s strongest position, and his sparkling form of late has come playing in an advanced central midfield role, but there is a specific reason Klopp might opt to play him further forward against Barcelona.
Obviously, all eyes will be on Lionel Messi as Barcelona’s greatest threat—a player more than capable of deciding a two-legged tie by himself, which Klopp will know all too well, even with Liverpool’s outstanding defensive record this season.
Messi primarily operates from a right-sided starting position, drifting infield onto his left foot to score goals and create chances, arguably better than any player in the history of the game.
Klopp praised Keita’s performance against Huddersfield as his best game for Liverpool so far, and was keen to highlight his contribution off the ball—an area he has improved enormously in recent weeks.
“He was calm in the right moment, positive, aggressive in the right moment, winning balls, blocking gaps, passing balls, being safe with the ball, turning and creating. It was just a brilliant game,” Klopp said.
With that in mind, should Klopp be considering a more cautious approach on Wednesday, Keita on the left of the front free could add that extra steel and defensive cover, helping track back and give Andy Robertson support to deal with Messi, which Origi wouldn’t necessarily provide to the same degree.
Keita also has a great understanding with Mane, and having the two of them close to each other and able to link up in attack could also work nicely.
With three goals in his last five starts, Keita has also shown he can contribute significantly in that department.
Option C: The diamond midfield
4-4-2 diamond: Keita No. 10, Salah and Mane up front
At times this season, although Klopp has largely stuck with the 4-3-3 system, in reality Liverpool’s shape has often looked more like a midfield diamond with two wide forwards up top.
Firmino’s tendency to drop into midfield and start attacks from deeper, central areas leaves space for Mane and Salah to exploit in behind, cutting infield from their ostensibly wide starting positions to get into goalscoring areas in the box.
Both have the pace, movement and technical quality to cause Barcelona’s defence plenty of problems as a strike partnership.
And Keita could be ideally suited to drifting in behind them at the tip of the diamond midfield in a No. 10 role, where he can press Sergio Busquets and make those late runs into the box.
Depending on Fabinho’s fitness, he would be the most likely candidate to play as the No. 6 at the base of the diamond.
This would leave Klopp with Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Gini Wijnaldum to pick from on the left- and right-hand sides, using their energy and dynamism to cover a great deal of ground and offer defensive cover to both full-backs when required.
Barcelona wouldn’t be expecting this option, and it could certainly take them by surprise should Klopp decide to go with a change in shape.
Option D: The Shaqiri wildcard
4-2-3-1: Shaqiri, Keita, Mane, Salah up front
This is, of course, something we saw plenty of in the first half of the season, as Klopp switched to the 4-2-3-1 system in order to accommodate Xherdan Shaqiri, whom he has been reluctant to play in a 4-3-3, perhaps due to a lack of trust in his work rate off the ball.
Shaqiri made a telling contribution in that role, however, chipping in with six goals—including a brace off the bench to beat Man United at Anfield—as well as displaying excellent vision and the ability to play defence-splitting through balls.
Somewhat mysteriously, the Swiss international has somewhat shrunk into the background over the second half of the season, and has been restricted to only a handful of short substitute appearances in which he has struggled to make a similar impact.
However, Klopp gave him the final 20 minutes off the bench against Huddersfield, and despite his lack of minutes lately, Shaqiri looked sharp.
He dinked a perfect right-footed cross to the back post, which Mane headed against the upright, before a lovely reverse through ball to Robertson in the buildup to the fifth goal, scored by Salah.
This option would enable Klopp to field a solid double pivot in midfield—perhaps Henderson and Fabinho—providing a strong defensive screen in front of the back four.
And he could play Salah through the middle as he did for much of the first half of the season, with Shaqiri on the right and Mane left.
That would leave a question mark over the No. 10 role, which Firmino performed earlier in the season, with Keita perhaps the best available option.
Or that could even fall to Wijnaldum who has, of course, played there plenty in the past, including for the Netherlands.
It’s perhaps the least likely of all the possible options Klopp might go with, but Shaqiri could be that wildcard to catch Barcelona by surprise.
He has the quality, and after being left out in recent months he will no doubt be hungry to seize any opportunity that comes his way.