Jurgen Klopp returns to Germany on Thursday as Liverpool look to take a step closer to Europa League glory and a highly coveted Champions League berth when facing Augsburg at WWK Arena. Since taking over at Anfield in October, the former Borussia Dortmund boss has overseen some notable highs, including wins over Chelsea and Manchester City and on Sunday a 6-0 victory at Aston Villa. Yet injuries and inconsistency means Liverpool’s hopes of earning Champions League qualification through the Premier League are slim, with the Merseysiders currently in eighth spot, nine points off the top four.
That situation means Klopp now views the Europa League, and capitalizing on the rule brought in last season giving the winners a place in the Champions League, as his team’s best route to a place among Europe’s elite.
“How many points in the league are we away from the Champions League? I think it is nine,” he said on Wednesday. “So, yeah, at this moment I would say we have a better chance this way at the moment. Maybe the top four clubs will have a crisis. But we have to solve our own problems. We have to be at the highest motivation for the game.
“For sure the Europa League is not the shortest way to get to the Champions League. It's a really hard way and not the normal road. But the chance to qualify for the Champions League makes it more interesting. Ask Sevilla who would have qualified many times if the rule was in place.”
Liverpool have plenty of work to do to make that goal a reality, as they prepare for the first leg of their Round of 16 tie. Indeed, they have fallen at this stage on the last two occasions they entered the Europa League, in 2013 and 2015, losing to Besiktas and Zenit St Petersburg.
Still, Liverpool’s recent European history is certainly richer than that of their opponents. Augsburg are in their first season in European competition of any kind, after the side from southern Germany recorded their best ever finish in the Bundesliga last season when coming in fifth place.
The team’s results this season have not been nearly so impressive. Augsburg sit 14th in the Bundesliga, just a single point above the relegation playoff position, and are yet to win in four games in 2016 following a 3-1 home loss to Bayern Munich on Sunday. But their performances in the Europa League have been a saving grace.
Having ousted Premier League side Southampton in the qualifiers, the Bavarian club recorded a memorable result to earn passage into the Round of 32. Facing a trip to Partizan Belgrade, Augsburg earned the required 3-1 win to edge out the Serbian club in the final round of group stage fixtures. Manager Markus Weinzierl is now eager for his side to make the most of a meeting with the five-time European champions.
“We are determined to put in a good performance against Liverpool, and want to put ourselves in a good position going into the second leg,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “We will be aggressive in our play, and want to keep the clean sheet. A win would be invaluable. I would have liked to have faced them six weeks ago, as Liverpool have only improved in recent times. We are expecting a strong team, and are clear underdogs.”
Weinzerl will be without attacking midfielder Jan Moravek as he recovers from a concussion, while Piotr Trochowski and Jeong-Ho Hong are major fitness doubts. For Liverpool, Adam Lallana will be absent with a calf problem, but Lucas Leiva is in the squad after missing the win over Aston Villa.
Kickoff time: 3:05 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 2