Jurgen Klopp has solved critical Liverpool problem but Real Madrid pose biggest test yet
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Four starts. Four clean sheets. For a pairing that was beyond every Liverpool fan’s wildest dreams (or should that be nightmares?) just six months ago, Nat Phillips and Ozan Kabak are turning into an impressively dependable duo.
Fabinho and Joel Matip are the only other centre-back twosome with as many shut-outs this season, and the two have far more top-level experience than the current pairing.
That’s now a 2-0 win over Sheffield United, a 2-0 win over RB Leipzig, a 1-0 win over Wolves and a 3-0 defeat of Arsenal that have come with Phillips, 24, and Kabak, 21, together in central defence.
The victory over the bottom-of-the-table Blades was the only one in which Fabinho, perhaps the finest No 6 in world football, was not in the holding midfield role. That is a mitigating factor admittedly.
The Brazilian is the lynchpin of the whole team in his favoured position and adds much-needed defensive security which helps the entire team not just out of possession but in it.
Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and James Milner dominated Arsenal’s midfield and the Liverpool back-line – or at least the centre-halves Phillips and Kabak, not so much the busy Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson – had an easy night’s work. The forwards were free to create chances and get at the Gunners.
But whenever the two central defenders were called upon, both Phillips and Kabak were steady, with both consistently strong in the air and the latter showing his quality in taking the ball out from the back.
Liverpool have been forced to use a quite ridiculous number of different centre-half partnerships this term thanks to injuries to Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson. Even Phillips and Kabak themselves have had knocks, so bad has been Liverpool’s injury luck at the back.
But in the on-loan Turk and the steady-if-unspectacular Englishman, who was headed to Swansea on loan in the summer to replace Joe Rodon before a deal was fortunately scuppered, Liverpool have finally found the partnership that can allow the season to end with some consistency.
The pair, shielded by the brilliant Fabinho, have helped inject some steeliness and regularity into the back-line. With a consistent defensive line, Liverpool have improved game by game.
Neither are defenders of the same class as the likes of Van Dijk, Gomez or Matip but they are doing their jobs excellently.
Phillips is proving himself a stand-in worthy of a first-team role at Anfield next term while Kabak is making a compelling case to be signed permanently from Schalke for £18million in the summer.
They are complementing one another well, despite their limitations, as club legend Jamie Carragher noted after the win over Wolves.
“That’s what playing centre-back is about. It’s a partnership, it’s not about having one player who is amazing, you work together and they did,” he said.
“They played really, really well and I liked it a lot,” Klopp said after the win at Molineux. “It was a massive task from a concentration point of view, but they did really well and I’m really happy.”
Rightly so. Courtesy of back-to-back wins over Wolves and Arsenal, Liverpool are now just two points off of fourth-placed Chelsea and seven behind Leicester in third.
Both have some tough games still to come, including a match-up against one another on the penultimate weekend of Premier League matches, while Liverpool’s top-flight run-in is more favourable – at least in this form.
But the toughest test for Phillips and Kabak is still to come – in the form of Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema this Tuesday night in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
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The Frenchman’s header against Eibar on Saturday was his 24th goal of the season and the La Liga March Player of the Month has scored in seven straight games, racking up nine goals in that stint.
The 33-year-old is an entirely different quality of opponent to David McGoldrick and Oli McBurnie, Yussuf Poulsen and Emil Forsberg, Willian Jose and Adama Traore and also Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette, the men Phillips and Kabak have faced until now.
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Benzema’s record of 273 goals for Real Madrid – less than only Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul – is testament to his ability and he has actually only improved since the Portuguese left the Bernabeu.
But Los Blancos are not quite as fearsome as they were when Ronaldo was his team-mate. Thwart Benzema and Liverpool stand an excellent chance of progressing to the semi-finals.
He has however scored against far meaner centre-back opponents this season and has netted in every Champions League match he’s played in other than in two group games against Shakhtar Donetsk.
It is against the veteran No 9, a four-time Champions League winner, that the true effectiveness of Phillips and Kabak’s coalition will be put to the test.
Come through Tuesday night, and the second leg, and Liverpool will harbour strong beliefs they can make an assault on the Premier League’s top four and also dream of lifting a seventh European Cup next month.
Remarkably, Phillips and Kabak could yet become the unlikeliest of club legends.
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