Central and South American players who were barred from travelling to World Cup qualifiers by their Premier League teams will be available this weekend after their countries backed down from a request to ban them under FIFA rules. 

Players from Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Paraguay are cleared to play as their national federations agreed late Friday to waive a measure that would have compelled the players to sit out after their clubs refused to release them for international duty. 

Premier League teams last month decided to prevent players from nations on the United Kingdom's COVID-19 "red list" to participate in Qatar 2022 qualifiers, citing the UK's requirement that people who have travelled to those countries quarantine for 10 days upon their return. 

There had been some indications earlier Friday that the players might be available, but official word did not come down until shortly before midnight London time. 

Brazilians now available to their clubs Saturday include Ederson and Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City, Chelsea's Thiago Silva and Manchester United's Fred. 

Among players from other nations involved, Wolves can use Mexico's Raul Jimenez on Saturday, while Newcastle will have Paraguay's Miguel Almiron available, and Watford can play Chile's Francisco Sierralta 

Liverpool will be most relieved, with Alisson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino cleared to face Raphina and Leeds on Sunday. 

Earlier Friday, Jurgen Klopp said at a news conference that he hoped a solution could be reached for the benefit of all parties involved. 

"It is a really difficult situation and really tricky for all the clubs, and the players especially," Klopp said. "We should not forget at this moment that the players wanted to play these games, the clubs wanted to let the players go but it was not possible."

Jurgen Klopp hinted that Liverpool will be without Roberto Firmino, Alisson and Fabinho for the trip to Leeds United on Sunday.

Firmino misses out through a hamstring injury sustained against Chelsea but the availability of Alisson and Fabinho remains in doubt after Brazil called on FIFA to suspend the players from playing this weekend.

Brazil requested the governing body to take action after the Premier League clubs agreed to not let their players travel to South America, amid quarantining fears on their return subsequently causing them to miss fixtures.

When asked for an update on the situation, Klopp told reporters at Friday's pre-match news conference: "I know Bobby [Firmino] will not be available because of injury. About the rest, no.

"It’s a really difficult situation and really tricky for all the clubs and players, especially.

"We should not forget the players wanted to play, the clubs wanted to let players go but it was not possible.

"It looks like the real punishment is on the players because they can't play and, of course, the clubs as well.

"That's really not okay, we didn't decide that the players could not go.

"Brazil played 1.30am this morning [UK] time, they won all 3 games and still there is a complaint.

"Before the last break I met [Arsene] Wenger and he showed me World Cup plans. In that moment I got the message from our guys 'no exemptions from government for our players'.

"Now we have that situation, we still don't know who we can line-up at the weekend.

"I've no idea when I can expect a solution, we will see. I don't know what moment I have to make the decision. I want to play them on Sunday but we will see."

Klopp's side travel to Elland Road on the second-longest unbeaten run in England's top four tiers (13), also winning seven of their last eight Premier League matches on the road.

Leeds are winless in their last eight top-flight meetings with the Reds, though they held Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at Elland Road last season.

Jurgen Klopp hinted that Liverpool will be without Roberto Firmino, Alisson and Fabinho for the trip to Leeds United on Sunday.

Firmino misses out through a hamstring injury sustained against Chelsea but the availability of Alisson and Fabinho remains in doubt after Brazil called on FIFA to suspend the players from playing this weekend.

Brazil requested the governing body to take action after the Premier League clubs agreed to not let their players travel to South America, amid quarantining fears on their return subsequently causing them to miss fixtures.

When asked for an update on the situation, Klopp told reporters at Friday's pre-match news conference: "I know Bobby [Firmino] will not be available because of injury. About the rest, no.

"It’s a really difficult situation and really tricky for all the clubs and players, especially.

"We should not forget the players wanted to play, the clubs wanted to let players go but it was not possible.

"It looks like the real punishment is on the players because they can't play and, of course, the clubs as well.

"That's really not okay, we didn't decide that the players could not go.

"Brazil played 1.30am this morning [UK] time, they won all 3 games and still there is a complaint.

"Before the last break I met [Arsene] Wenger and he showed me World Cup plans. In that moment I got the message from our guys 'no exemptions from government for our players'.

"Now we have that situation, we still don't know who we can line-up at the weekend.

"I've no idea when I can expect a solution, we will see. I don't know what moment I have to make the decision. I want to play them on Sunday but we will see."

Klopp's side travel to Elland Road on the second-longest unbeaten run in England's top four tiers (13), also winning seven of their last eight Premier League matches on the road.

Leeds are winless in their last eight top-flight meetings with the Reds, though they held Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at Elland Road last season.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has declared Virgil van Dijk fit to face Leeds United on Sunday after the defender's injury scare on international duty.

The Netherlands captain picked up a slight knock in the 6-1 demolition of Turkey on Tuesday, which would have concerned Liverpool given Van Dijk's absence for most of last term.

However, the centre-back quickly calmed Klopp's concerns before returning to Liverpool, who are on the second-longest unbeaten run in England's top four tiers (13).

The Liverpool manager confirmed the £75million man's fitness.

"With Virgil [van Dijk], that was obviously a scary moment, you can imagine," Klopp told Liverpool's official website.

"I sent him a message after the game, 'Are you all right?'."

Klopp was immediately sent a message or reassurance, and he then asked whether Van Dijk was "100 per cent", and was told he was actually "200 per cent" healthy.

The Reds boss said he then sent a message that read: "Come on, send me a video of you without limping…"

"So he called me from the bus and said, 'Boss, I’m fine!'," Klopp said.

"I said, 'Why are you limping then?’. He said, 'My wife asked the same!'.

"So, yeah, that was a bit of a tricky moment but apart from that, no, all fine [for the international players]."

Klopp will have been briefly sweating on his star defender's fitness, given Liverpool missed Van Dijk's leadership and defensive attributes last term, with only one Premier League defender (Burnley's James Tarkowski: 199) bettering his 191 aerial wins during the Reds' title-winning campaign of 2019-20.

Despite the encouraging news on Van Dijk, Klopp will be without Roberto Firmino for the trip to Elland Road as the forward suffered a hamstring injury against Chelsea.

However, Harvey Elliott is back to full fitness after withdrawing from England's Under-21 squad. Prior to the international break, Elliott became the third youngest Liverpool player ever to start against Chelsea, after John McLaughlin in 1970 and Raheem Sterling in 2012.

Klopp also confirmed Naby Keita's safe return from Guinea, having managed to leave his home country after a military coup.

"Naby is fine," said Klopp. "Yesterday he was not here [at Liverpool's training ground] but he was in Liverpool again."

Roberto Firmino will have a scan after suffering an apparent hamstring injury in the first half of Liverpool's 1-1 draw with Chelsea on Saturday.

The Brazil international was making his first start of the Premier League season, having come on as a substitute in the previous wins over Norwich City and Burnley.

However, Firmino's outing was cut short after he reported concerns over a hamstring issue to the Liverpool bench, leading to the forward being substituted in the 43rd minute.

Asked about the severity of the injury after the game, manager Jurgen Klopp told the media: “Serious? I don't know. Serious enough to take him off, yes.

"Bobby felt his hamstring, came and told us so we had to prepare the change. Bobby is nobody who raises the hand when he doesn't feel anything.

"It doesn't look too serious but you never know before you have a scan, which will happen tomorrow."

Firmino had 27 total touches and completed 94.1 per cent of his attempted passes during his time on the pitch, though Liverpool trailed 1-0 when he was replaced.

A Mohamed Salah penalty in first-half stoppage time levelled the score after Reece James had been shown a red card for handling the ball on the line, preventing Sadio Mane's close-range attempt from going in.

While the Reds were unable to make their numerical advantage tell after the break, Klopp was able to see plenty of positives from the display – including another impressive outing from teenager Harvey Elliott.

The 18-year-old kept his place after making a first league start for Liverpool a week earlier against Burnley. He justified the faith shown in him too, making more successful passes than any other home player as he continued a promising link-up with Trent Alexander-Arnold and goalscorer Salah down his team's right flank.

"He looked good last week obviously in the game, was good during the training week," Klopp said of Elliott, who became the third youngest Liverpool player ever to start against Chelsea, after John McLaughlin in 1970 and Raheem Sterling in 2012.

"We wanted to change a little bit. We wanted to have the dynamic of Hendo [Jordan Henderson] in the team, wanted to have Robbo [Andy Rovertson], wanted to have Bobby [Firmino] in between the lines.

"That all worked out pretty well and then on the right side we didn't want to change on top of that something.

"Harvey was from the first day of pre-season with us, pretty much the only midfielder we played so far [who that applies to] apart from Naby (Keita) and Ox (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain).

"He looks fit obviously and can just deal with 95 minutes and that's important for us. It was important today and that is why we started him and that's why we left him on the pitch."

Liverpool are next in action on September 12, travelling to Elland Road to take on Leeds United three days before opening their Champions League campaign at home to Milan.

Jurgen Klopp accepted a draw was a fair result after Liverpool struggled to break down Chelsea's 10 men in the second half at Anfield.

Kai Havertz headed Chelsea into a 22nd-minute lead at Anfield, an advantage they retained until the key moment of the Premier League contest deep into added time in the first half, with Reece James sent off for handling the ball on the line.

Joel Matip hit the crossbar with a close-range header before Sadio Mane's follow-up attempt amid a scramble inside the six-yard box saw James keep the attempt out with his arm, albeit only after the ball had bounced up off his knee.

Mohamed Salah converted from the spot to draw Liverpool level, yet the home team failed to make their numerical advantage tell in the second half as the game finished 1-1.

"Really exciting game, I saw a really exciting game. It was tough, it was hard for both teams," Klopp told Sky Sports.

"We had a really good first half, a good 45 minutes. With the first situation for Chelsea we conceded a goal – that's not cool.

"Everybody who watches the Premier League, who watches Chelsea knows they are pretty good at defending. The goal we scored and the penalty we got was very deserved. I feel for Reece, because it was obviously tricky, but it was a penalty.

"In the second half, everyone thinks against 10 men, 'Oh, come on'. This kind of stuff.

"But there is no advantage. There is an advantage in possession, yes you have to outnumber them, but the defensive structure changed in that they defended slightly deeper. They had eight players, eight players defending that area around the box."

Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel felt the dismissal of James rather ruined the game as a spectacle, though opposite number Klopp was not overly concerned by his side's inability to capitalise on the red card.

Edouard Mendy was called on to make six saves, his most in a single appearance since joining Chelsea in any competition, but Liverpool were too often forced to take on long-range attempts.

"We had our shots from distance, Mendy saved them, I would have loved to see us a little bit closer for the rebounds or whatever, but, again, it was a good game," Klopp continued.

"We played a good game. I loved the intensity, I loved the atmosphere we created altogether, the people in the stands and on the pitch.

"Chelsea deserved a draw, plus we get a point as well.

"I don't know how the result would have been with 11 against 11, but it was 1-1 and that's really okay.

"It's really early in the season. I know people tend to make a big fuss about everything, but we drew against the best team from last season in Europe. That's okay."

The one concern for Klopp came with an injury to Roberto Firmino, who had to be replaced in the first half with what the Liverpool manager revealed to be a muscle problem, adding: "I hope it's not too big".

Is it time to ring the changes after a poor start or stick with the players who got you off to a flying start?

If you picked Bruno Fernandes for the opening round of Premier League fixtures, the Manchester United midfielder delivered with interest as he scored a stunning hat-trick against Leeds United.

Whether your team is sitting pretty or languishing in the lower reaches of the league, you have no doubt spent this week pondering potential selections.

Using Opta data, here are Stats Perform's Fantasy Picks that can rack up the points.

 

EDOUARD MENDY (Arsenal v Chelsea)

Edouard Mendy started the campaign with a clean sheet as Chelsea cruised to a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace.

The European champions face another London derby at Arsenal on Sunday and Mendy can ensure the Gunners fire a blank.

Since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in January, Mendy has kept more clean sheets than any other top-flight goalkeeper with 10. His clean sheet record of 53 per cent from 32 matches is the best in Premier League history for those who have played at least 10 games.

 

KIERAN TIERNEY (Arsenal v Chelsea)

Arsenal were beaten 2-0 by newly promoted Brentford in the first game of the campaign.

Mikel Arteta could have no complaints over Kieran Tierney's performance, with the marauding full-back creating six chances.

That was more than any other player in the opening round of fixtures and he can pose questions of the Chelsea defence in the London derby.

 

AARON CRESSWELL (West Ham v Leicester City)

West Ham defender Aaron Cresswell made a great start to the campaign and scored in a 4-2 victory at Newcastle United.

Cresswell has played a big part in the Hammers' success under David Moyes and is definitely one to consider picking for their home clash with Leicester City.

Since the start of last season, Cresswell has provided more assists (eight) than any other defender in the competition. No player has been involved in more goals than his tally of nine.

 

JOE WILLOCK (Aston Villa v Newcastle United)

Newcastle fans were delighted when Joe Willock returned to the club from Arsenal on a permanent deal following a successful loan spell last season.

Willock was not involved in a home loss to the Hammers, but can hit the ground running at Aston Villa.

The midfielder could become only the fourth player to score in eight consecutive Premier League games after ending last season in sensational form.

 

KEVIN DE BRUYNE (Manchester City v Norwich City)

Midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne was restricted to a late substitute appearance as champions Manchester City were beaten at Tottenham last weekend.

Norwich City will be hoping the Belgium playmaker plays a limited role again, as he can cause all sorts of trouble if Pep Guardiola unleashes him from the start.

De Bruyne has been involved in five goals in four games against the Canaries, scoring three and setting up two. He has scored four and assisted seven in his past eight appearances versus newly promoted teams.

KELECHI IHEANACHO (West Ham v Leicester City)

Striker Kelechi Iheanacho was another player who started the Premier League as a substitute but he can make a big impact at West Ham.

He has been involved in four goals in his past four appearances against the Hammers, netting three times and providing an assist.

Iheanacho has enjoyed capital gains, scoring in his last three appearances in London.

 

ROBERTO FIRMINO (Liverpool v Burnley)

Brazil striker Roberto Firmino was on target in Liverpool's comfortable opening-day win at Norwich.

He has fond memories of coming up against Burnley, scoring five times and setting up a goal in his past six appearances versus the Clarets.

Firmino opened the scoring in a 3-0 victory at Turf Moor when the two sides last met in May and can strike again at Anfield.

Manchester City saw their main rivals for the Premier League title get off to a flying start on Saturday before the champions stumbled at Tottenham on Sunday.

Son Heung-min continued his phenomenal recent record against City with the only goal, while Pep Guardiola's men drew a blank for a third consecutive game in all competitions. Perhaps there's someone in north London who could help them out with that?

Manchester United and European champions Chelsea revelled back in front of full houses and Liverpool gave newly-promoted Norwich City a reality check.

But those are the bare facts. Let's delve a little deeper to examine some of the quirkier happenings on the Premier League's opening weekend.

Stumbling start for City

Guardiola suggested his stars returning from Euro 2020 and Copa America duty might be undercooked and so it proved. The 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium puts City in territory they are not used to.

You have to go back to 2008-09 and a 4-2 defeat at Aston Villa for the previous time City lost their opening Premier League fixture.

In that same campaign, Guardiola's fledgling Barcelona tenure got off to an inauspicious start with a reverse against Numancia that indicated little of the treble win that was about to unfold. The Catalan had overseen 11 subsequent opening day wins since then.

Perhaps it was always going to be Spurs who halted his run, Guardiola has now lost more away games against Tottenham (five) in all competitions than any other opponent in his career.

It is also worth considering whether he is chasing the wrong Spurs forward. Only Jamie Vardy (nine) has more than Son's seven goals against City since Guardiola took charge in 2016.

Liverpool got their Premier League title bid off to an untroubled start with a 3-0 win at newly promoted Norwich City.

Diogo Jota opened the scoring in the 26th minute, having been selected to start alongside Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane up front.

Roberto Firmino, recently back in training following Brazil's run to the Copa America final, replaced Jota with an hour played at Carrow Road and swiftly got on the scoresheet.

Salah claimed both assists – the second seemingly far more intentional than the first – and duly got in on the act, finishing emphatically with 16 minutes remaining and becoming the first player to score on five consecutive Premier League opening weekends.

Tim Krul extended himself to tip over an 11th-minute header from Portugal forward Jota before his opposite number was given some work.

Teemu Pukki got in behind the returning Virgil van Dijk on the end of Todd Cantwell's dinked throughball and Alisson had to save sharply at his near post in the 19th minute.

A pleasing back and forth had developed as Salah crashed a volley just wide from Mane's chipped delivery and it was Liverpool who found the breakthrough when the Egypt star failed to control Trent Alexander-Arnold's cross, with the ball falling kindly for Jota to slot home.

Salah made a truer contact on the volley when a left-wing corner was partially cleared, with his strike blocked by Ben Gibson before Pierre Lees-Melou got in the way of Joel Matip's follow-up.

Last-ditch Norwich defending continued early in the second half as Max Aarons and Grant Hanley combined to thwart Mane.

Konstantinos Tsimikas, playing at left-back for Liverpool in the absence of Andy Robertson, stung Krul's palms after the hour and the second goal inevitably arrived when Salah retrieved another blocked Mane effort and cut the ball into Firmino's path for a simple finish.

The goal Salah's endeavours deserved arrived when he snaffled a Gibson clearance and curled impeccably beyond Krul.

Jurgen Klopp says Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez will be involved for Liverpool when they play Bologna on Thursday.

The Reds step up their preparations for the forthcoming Premier League season with two 60-minutes matches against the Serie A side.

The central defensive duo made their long-awaited returns from injury against Hertha Berlin last time out, playing the final 21 minutes of the 4-3 defeat.

Van Dijk had not played since suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury against Everton in October 2020, while Gomez played his first minutes since damaging a tendon in his left knee while on international duty with England the following month.

Klopp is pleased with the progress the pair are making and is confident they can get more minutes under their belts against Bologna.

"Hopefully, yes. That's how it looks in the moment," he told the official club website. "I want to make it really clear, we push nothing. 

"We know exactly how they feel – how they really feel and not what they tell us because they obviously are desperate to play again. 

"It looks good, this morning [it was a] normal training session. Sometimes in moments, we swap Virgil and Joe a little bit so maybe the intensity doesn't get too high, but in general it looks really good. 

"How many minutes on Thursday, I don't know but there will be some minutes for sure."

Klopp may also have Alisson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino available for selection.

All three have returned from their extended break after helping Brazil reach the Copa America final, which they lost 1-0 to Argentina.

With Liverpool launching their Premier League campaign away at Norwich City on August 14, Klopp admits the returning trio's preparation time is far from ideal.

Nevertheless, the German said they could feature against Sinisa Mihajlovic's side, who finished 12th in Serie A last term.

"The players who play international football never have enough time; that was always like this," he added.

"You never have enough time to train and stuff like this – a week, two weeks before the season.

"[The Brazilian players] will start tomorrow with training properly with us.

"Maybe on Thursday in our two 60-minute games against Bologna, we can involve them already. I don't know yet – maybe 15, 20, 30 minutes. We have to see how they look exactly."

These have been some tough months for the grand old city of Liverpool, the men in red losing a Premier League title first and then the waterfront being stripped of its UNESCO World Heritage status.

The cause of the latter bitter blow might be boiled down to a rush to regenerate. United Nations cultural blazers were ultimately at odds with city chiefs over the merit in complementing an elegant Victorian window on the world with shiny towers, sharp-angled business premises and apartment buildings. There's an arena too, and, perhaps the straw that broke the camel's back, a gleaming new stadium for Everton.

Goodison is going, and perhaps UNESCO is privately upset to see another of Archibald Leitch's greatest hits bite the dust.

Quite what has gone wrong at Liverpool Football Club is far from as easily deciphered, and if we were to ignore the wild journey that has led to where they stand today, perhaps there would be no real cause for worry in the first place.

Third in the Premier League last season means the Champions League awaits the Reds in 2021-22. And third after first place in 2020-21 does not sound like the worst of outcomes, a solid enough follow-up season, if just a touch deflating. Owners Fenway Sports Group will know another truckload of UEFA coinage is heading for the bank vaults, and Jurgen Klopp has been able to carry out a tweak or two to his squad, with more surely to come.

Yet with four weeks of last season remaining, Klopp's team were toiling in sixth place, the manager showing signs of feeling pressure as his team scrambled for the form that would conceal the imperfections of the previous eight months.

Ahead of the new campaign, Stats Perform looks at how Liverpool, with a long-awaited championship now long out of their system, could evolve as they bid to close the gap to the Manchester giants, United and City.


RED PERIL, OR RED HERRING?

With a little hindsight, might the drama that encircled Liverpool last season have been overblown? Anyone can lose 7-2 at Aston Villa, right?

And six consecutive home defeats... well, that occasionally happens to the best teams, doesn't it? Were three of those Anfield raiders – Brighton and Hove Albion, Burnley and Fulham – perhaps better sides than our memories recall?

Weren't Everton due a win on the other side of Stanley Park?

And above all, didn't it seem like Klopp essentially had the situation under control?

Sorry to come across all 2 Unlimited, but no, no, no-no, no-no.

Liverpool are coming off a honker of a season that they rescued rather too easily as their nearest top-four rivals waved them through. Wins over Southampton, Manchester United, West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace in May papered over quite substantial cracks.

"In the harder moments you can show the most and we really stuck together all the time," Klopp said.


WHAT MADE THE NEAR-INVINCIBLES SO FALLIBLE?

The injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are an obvious but credible answer here. Klopp took flak for not having top-class back-up to his back-up defenders, and when captain Jordan Henderson suffered a groin injury in the Everton defeat in February that was his season over too.

A strong spine turned, if not to jelly, then to something suddenly highly penetrable.

Opta data shows Liverpool gained 19 points from a losing position last season, just as they did when landing their first Premier League title in the 2019-20 campaign.

That looks admirable, and only Manchester United (31 points) and Leicester City (20) hauled back as many from being in deficit, but Liverpool also dropped 15 points from a winning position, when in the title year they let just five slip away in such a circumstance.

In the Premier League, Liverpool's players were involved in 3,736 duels in 2019-20 and a near-identical 3,729 in 2020-21. (Opta defines a duel as a 50-50 contest for the ball.)

But tellingly, Liverpool's success rate in such duels slipped from 50.55 per cent in the championship-winning campaign to 47.78 per cent.

And if that sounds like a small dip, consider that only two teams in the past two Premier League seasons have won a lower percentage of duels across a season: Bournemouth in 2019-20 with a 47.69 per cent rate, and Sheffield United with 46.55 in 2020-21. Both those sides were relegated.

It feels telling, and Klopp will want the pendulum to swing back above 50 per cent in the new campaign. Marginal gains in this area can have an enormous impact.

Mid-table Everton (52.92 per cent) and Aston Villa (52.58) led the way last season, and both had spells where they threatened to snatch a top-six place, while champions Manchester City were third, followed by Leicester and Manchester United.


NAME NAMES!

Among defenders, only Leeds United's Luke Ayling (279) made more ball recoveries than Andy Robertson (229) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (258).

There, that's a good thing.

Less good: among defenders who played at least five games, Liverpool's Alexander-Arnold (25.49 times), Neco Williams (23.59) and Robertson (20.39) stood first, second and fourth on the list of Premier League players who lost the ball the most often per 90 minutes.

Rhys Williams, who like namesake Neco had more opportunities in the top flight than he might have anticipated, achieved the Premier League's highest duel success rate among all defenders (76 per cent from nine appearances; 38 of 50 duels).

That sounds promising for the future, and Nat Phillips was another game stand-in, winning a defender's league-high 7.92 duels per 90 minutes.

Phillips stood sixth on the list of the most duels contested per 90 minutes by a defender too (13.05), and here's a statistic that won't have passed Klopp by: Liverpool won 11, drew two and lost only two games when Phillips started in the Premier League.

That is a massive 73.3 per cent win rate, and they went 9-7-7 without him (39.1 per cent win rate).

The 24-year-old was the Reds' player of the month for March, and perhaps Klopp would do well to keep him around the first team, even with Matip, Van Dijk and Gomez back for the new term.


A SOFT CENTRE?

Thiago Alcantara's first season with Liverpool proved largely anticlimactic and Klopp will expect more from the Spaniard in the new campaign. Goodness knows, with Georginio Wijnaldum now at Paris Saint-Germain, Klopp needs to find something extra in midfield, which has begun to look increasingly like the team's problem area.

Liverpool were hindered last season by losing Fabinho to a central defensive role at times, and it seems imperative Klopp has the Brazilian and Thiago forging an alliance in the coming months.

In the 21 games where skipper Henderson featured, he made 8.86 ball recoveries per 90 minutes, which put him fifth overall among midfielders and top among the squad's engine-room stars.

Henderson, playing the role of disruptor and creator, also attempted the most throughballs of any Liverpool midfielder (averaging 0.21 such passes per 90 minutes) and Klopp must long for a genuine playmaker who might get closer to the numbers posted by the likes of City's Kevin De Bruyne (0.58 per 90 minutes), United's Bruno Fernandes (0.35) or even Everton's James Rodriguez (0.41).

Liverpool did not have a midfielder in the top 20 for open-play goal assists per 90 minutes among those to have played at least 15 games, with Curtis Jones having 0.15 per 90 to sit in a tie for 21st on the list. When the assists from the flying full-backs dry up, as they rather did in the league last season, Liverpool need to do better in midfield.

MARGINAL PAINS

Liverpool had more big chances – where a player should reasonably be expected to score – than any other team in the Premier League last term. Being more clinical could have made it a very different season.

They only scored from 37.61 per cent of those 109 opportunities, however. Pep Guardiola's City stuck away 44.34 per cent of their 106 big chances and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's United netted 45.74 per cent of their 94 such openings. The Manchester giants duly finished first and second.

Liverpool also had more passes into the final third (2,508) than any other side, so clearly they are doing a lot right, yet when their players see the whites of the opposition goalkeeper's eyes, their aim has not been as precise as would be ideal.

Their overall shot conversion percentage tumbled from 14.38 to 11.18 – from the league's highest rate in 2019-20 to only the 11th-ranked in the 2020-21 campaign.

Mohamed Salah scored 22 times with a shot conversion rate of 17.46 per cent, and Klopp would settle for a repeat of that in 2021-22, but Sadio Mane's form in front of goal has left a lot to be desired in the league.

Mane's conversion rate dipped from an impressive 23.38 per cent in the title campaign to a wholly underwhelming 11.7 per cent in the hangover season, with the addition of Diogo Jota to Liverpool's attacking ranks not proving perhaps the spur to the existing strike force that the manager might have expected.

Roberto Firmino's 9.09 per cent strike rate was tolerable in the championship year because so many others were banging goals in, but with those drying up by comparison in 2020-21, nine goals from a conversion rate of 10.84 was not what Doctor Klopp ordered.


BETTER CALL FOR SAUL?

Like just about every club, Liverpool have been hit hard financially by the coronavirus pandemic and it remains to be seen if there is a significant transfer kitty for Klopp, who has already invested by bringing in promising young French defender Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig.

Atletico Madrid's LaLiga-winning midfielder Saul Niguez is a rumoured target and would be a handy acquisition, but the Spaniard has also been linked with United.

Should Saul go to Old Trafford, joining Jadon Sancho and the expected addition of Raphael Varane to Solskjaer's ranks, then the team in red challenging City for supremacy next season would seem more likely to be the record 20-time English champions, and not Liverpool.

But the numbers here tell us that Klopp's team are perhaps not as far away from City as the 17-point gap from last season may suggest.

Just like a rock star's guitar, Klopp's heavy metal football only truly works when the tuning is right, and when the entire band is in sync.

Last season, Liverpool without Van Dijk were like Black Sabbath without Ozzy, Motorhead without Lemmy. They were not themselves but just about got away with it.

With the talismanic Dutchman and the inspirational Henderson over their injuries, there is just that nagging feeling that those treasured big hits could get another airing.

Defending champions Brazil secured top spot in Group B in dramatic fashion, claiming a last-gasp 2-1 win over Colombia as controversy marred the Copa America showdown.

Colombia were left seething when Brazil substitute Roberto Firmino's 78th-minute equaliser came after the ball deflected off referee Nestor Pitana in the build-up – the official allowing play to continue rather than call for a drop-ball, leading to lengthy protests from Colombia.

Brazil compounded Colombia's frustrations after Casemiro struck in the 10th minute of stoppage time as the Selecao extended their winning streak to 10 games on Wednesday.

Colombia had been holding on to a 1-0 lead after Luis Diaz's spectacular 10th-minute volley, ending Brazil's six-game run without conceding a goal.

Reinaldo Rueda's Colombia took the lead in stunning fashion, when Juan Cuadrado whipped in a cross from the right flank, finding an unmarked Diaz – who fired home a sensational bicycle volley at the back post in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil, who went into the game having scored more goals (seven) and had more shots on target per game (eight) than any other team at this year's Copa America, struggled to create chances in the first 45 minutes.

Neymar had his first sniff on goal in the 55th minute from a direct ball he volleyed tamely on target, while he shot wide from outside the box shortly after.

In the 66th minute, half-time substitute Firmino produced a clever pass for Neymar to round goalkeeper David Ospina, only to hit the post off-balance from an angle.

Brazil found an equaliser with 12 minutes remaining, although it was controversial after the ball hit the referee in the lead-up, with play allowed to continue, rather than a drop-ball.

Tite's Selecao immediately pushed the ball wide to substitute Renan Lodi, whose cross was glanced in by Firmino, with Ospina unable to prevent it from creeping under him.

With virtually the last kick of the game, an unmarked Casemiro headed in Neymar's corner at the near post, sparking mass celebrations.

Coronavirus again cast a shadow over the 2021 Copa America as Venezuela's preparations for their opening match versus Brazil were thrown into chaos.

The tournament has been moved from Colombia and Argentina to Brazil amid political unrest in the former nation and a spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the latter.

Brazil has also suffered horribly during the pandemic, although calls to postpone the tournament have been resisted despite some players from the host nation voicing their opposition.

Now Venezuela's attempts to snap a run of eight winless Copa America encounters with the Selecao – who have won six in that streak - look set to be compromised after news that 12 of their travelling party have tested positive for coronavirus.

"The health department was notified by CONMEBOL that 12 members of the Venezuelan national team’s delegation, including players and coaching staff, tested positive for COVID-19," the secretary of state for Brasilia said in a statement, with the match set to take place at Estadio Nacional in the Brazilian capital.

 "They are all asymptomatic, isolated in single rooms and are being monitored."

The lack of any public statement on the matter from either CONMEBOL or the Venezuelan Football Federation (FVF), means it is unclear how many of the 12 are players.

The Athletic reported at least five players, including captain Tomas Rincon had tested positive, with local reports in Venezuela suggesting a flight for 14 replacement players had been chartered.

Teams named provisional squads of up to 60 for the tournament to mitigate against the potential effects of COVID-19 outbreaks.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brazil – Roberto Firmino

Firmino might have endured a mixed season as Liverpool ceded their Premier League crown, but Brazil boss Tite will be hopeful the forward rises to the occasion as he did on the way to glory in 2019. Firmino's five goal involvements (two goals, three assists) were more than any other player in the competition.

 

Venezuela – Yangel Herrera

In Rincon's expected absence, plenty of onus will fall upon Herrera's performance in Venezuela's engine room – assuming, of course, that he is available himself. Contracted to Manchester City, Herrera is one of the Premier League champions' loan army, having spent each of the past three seasons with New York City, Huesca and Granada respectively.

In LaLiga last term, he averaged 2.3 tackles and 10.2 duels won per 90 minutes for Granada – the latter statistic placing him second in the division among midfielders to have played 20 or more games.

KEY OPTA FACTS

- Brazil have gone 20 Copa America’s games without losing when the tournament takes place on home soil (W12 D8). Their previous defeat was a 3-1 loss to Peru in 1975.
- Indeed the Selecao have lifted the title on the previous five occasions they have hosted, with an overall record of W26 D12 L2 – the other reverse coming versus Paraguay back in 1949.
- Venezuela's quarter-final exit against Argentina in the 2019 Copa America ended a three-match unbeaten run in the competition (W1 D2).
- This will be Venezuela's 20th Copa América appearance, the fewest of any CONMEBOL nation.

Liverpool's late-season charge continued as they moved into the Premier League's top four thanks to a 3-0 win away at Burnley.

The Reds claimed a fourth successive win to further boost their hopes of sealing Champions League qualification, Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Phillips getting goals either side of halt-time at Turf Moor.

Jurgen Klopp's side had needed a last-gasp winner from goalkeeper Alisson to beat West Brom on Sunday, but there was no need for any late drama this time, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain firing in a late third.

The hard-fought result sees them leapfrog Leicester City on goal difference and means a victory on the final day at Anfield on Sunday against Crystal Palace will see them in Europe's premier club competition next season.

Liverpool had been wasteful in a first half that appeared set to end scoreless until Firmino popped up in the 43rd minute, providing the finishing touch to Andy Robertson's cut-back cross.

The Brazilian was one of those to miss a clear opportunity as the visitors too often failed to trouble full debutant Will Norris in the Burnley goal. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah were also guilty of failing to hit the target, while Thiago Alcantara dragged wide.

Phillips had seemingly missed his chance to score a maiden goal for the club when blazing over before the break, but he made no mistake when getting his head on the end of Mane's inviting cross seven minutes into the second half.

The defender used his head to good effect inside his own penalty area as Burnley pushed hard for a response, retreating onto the line to prevent James Tarkowski's set-piece header going in.

Instead, it was Liverpool who grabbed the third goal of the game, Oxlade-Chamberlain thrashing in a left-footed drive just seven minutes after coming on as Norris was beaten at the near post.

Jurgen Klopp believes dwindling confidence in front of goal is at the root of Liverpool's ongoing struggles this season, as opposed to bad luck.

Although their active defence of the title has long since ended, Liverpool could formally end their stint as Premier League champions by claiming a much-needed victory over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday.

If Manchester City beat Crystal Palace on Saturday and their neighbours lose to Klopp's men, Pep Guardiola's side will be crowned kings of England for the third time in the past four seasons.

That development might not be overly surprising, but the distance from which Liverpool have watched it unfold – having been the main counterpoint to City's pretentions of dominance over the previous three years – certainly has been.

The Reds are sixth in the table, four points shy of fourth-placed Chelsea with five games remaining heading into the weekend, meaning anything other than three points against United would make their chances of Champions League qualification increasingly remote.

Long-term injuries to key defenders Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have taken a significant toll but a misfiring attack has been under the spotlight over recent weeks.

Firing blanks

In three consecutive draws against Real Madrid, Leeds United and Newcastle United, Liverpool had 54 shots – including efforts blocked, as per Opta – and scored twice.

"We had a really detailed look at all the situations that we created over the last seven or eight games just to get an overview," Klopp told Sky Sports. "It is not unlucky. There are moments where we are unlucky. But if you are unlucky so often there must be something else.

"Sometimes it sounds a little boring, but we know we have to improve. The one thing we have to keep working on is the finishing. We have to finish the situations off. We have created [many] chances in the last three games and scored twice. That is obviously not enough.

"The performance around that shows you that something was right in the game. We had really good spells, but the important moment is the last moment. We cannot expect it to change overnight but we will not stop working on it.

"It is not exactly the football of last year, maybe, but it is all fuelled by that one moment. Either you score or you don't score. We have to keep working. We don't have to change inside out, 360 degrees or whatever. We only have to improve and to make it click."

Mane and Firmino under pressure

Such problems were unforeseeable at Christmas after Liverpool routed Palace 7-0 to go clear at the top of the table.

In the 19 Premier League games since, Liverpool have scored 19 times despite amassing an expected goals (xG) figure of 30.3. An xG underperformance of -11.3 is comfortably the worst in the division over this period.

Mohamed Salah has scored seven times in the top flight since December 25 and remains in the hunt for the Golden Boot on 20, one shy of Harry Kane. However, his attacking allies Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have managed three and one in 17 appearances apiece since then.

Salah and Mane are converting those opportunities Opta classes as "big chances" at 23.5 and 23.1 per cent success rates over the period in question, with Firmino languishing on 12.5 after netting one out of eight.

Compared to the trio most likely to feature in United's forward line this weekend, the lack of efficiency is stark. Since Christmas Day, Marcus Rashford has put away 37.5 per cent of his big chances, with Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani snaffling 40 and 50 per cent respectively.

"We can see the boys are not confident enough in the moment," Klopp said. "They don't use their first touch. They want to make sure the ball is in the right position and then it is too late, the defender jumps in.

"There are a lot of things. After not scoring for a while, you do not use some situations for finishing. That is normal because we are not flying."

Big six appeal

Funnily enough, the Untied game might be just what Liverpool need.

Shelling points to the likes of Leeds and Newcastle, due to late equalisers from Diego Llorente and Joe Willock, has been symptomatic of their season.

In games between the Premier League's 'big six' this term, Liverpool have won five, drawn two and lost two to claim 17 points – a level-best points haul from those matches alongside City.

"It is about talking to them, helping them to find solutions," Klopp added. "You can do that in training. All that is fine but then the game starts and the first ball does not go in, the second ball does not go in and the third ball does not go in. It is like a wound that is bleeding again.

"That is what you can see on the pitch. But a missed chance is information. You have to use it. The things we did to get in the position were right, so do it again but just adapt a little bit. Keep going. Stay positive."

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