Liverpool will be looking to avoid a major upset on Sunday when they welcome League One side Shrewsbury Town to Anfield in the third round of the FA Cup.
The Reds’ coronavirus outbreak is beginning to ease, but they are still expected to be far below full strength, potentially opening the door for Shrewsbury to pull off a famous giant-killing.
Liverpool will be hoping to have manager Jurgen Klopp back in the dugout for this match, which comes eight days after his positive coronavirus test forced him to miss the engrossing 2-2 draw with Chelsea last Sunday.
With assistant boss Pep Lijnders also subsequently testing positive, Peter Krawietz will take training, conduct media duties and potentially even replace Klopp at Anfield on Sunday should the German fail to provide a negative test.
The COVID-19 issues at Liverpool are beginning to ease, though; in addition to Klopp, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho, Curtis Jones, Alisson Becker, Roberto Firmino and Joel Matip have had the virus but will have passed the required isolation period by the time Sunday comes around.
The club’s training ground also reopened on Friday after being closed for a couple of days to contain the outbreak, which forced Thursday’s EFL Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal to be postponed until later this month.
All of that means that Liverpool have had a week to recover from the frenetic draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, a result which saw both of Manchester City’s closest challengers lose more ground in the Premier League title race.
The Reds have now failed to win any of their last four games across all competitions within 90 minutes, with their only triumph since December 16 coming via a penalty shootout against Leicester City in the EFL Cup quarter-finals.
Since their win over Newcastle United in mid-December, Klopp’s men have picked up just two points from the nine on offer in the Premier League, so Sunday’s match against lower-league opposition may come as a welcome break from top-flight action.
It is the beginning of temporary life without Africa Cup of Nations participants Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita, but Liverpool will still be firm favourites to progress with minimum fuss.
The seven-time FA Cup winners have made it through nine of their last 10 FA Cup third-round ties, while in their entire Football League history – stretching back to 1893 – they have only suffered two home FA Cup defeats against teams outside of the top two tiers.
That said, Liverpool have also not made it past the fifth round of this competition since 2014-15 and have not lifted the trophy since 2006, so their recent FA Cup record leaves a lot to be desired for a club of their stature.
Shrewsbury also have recent history of causing Liverpool trouble in this competition, having taken them to a replay when they met in the 2019-20 fourth round.
Indeed, the Shrews have forced a replay against three Premier League sides in the last six seasons, although each of those ultimately ended in elimination, while they have been knocked out in both of their previous FA Cup ties against Liverpool too.
There are no replays at this stage of the competition this season, meaning that Shrewsbury’s hopes of making it through to the fourth round for the third time in four seasons rest solely on picking up a famous win at Anfield this weekend.
Steve Cotterill’s side have so far escaped relatively unscathed by the swathes of coronavirus cancellations, and they travel to Merseyside in good form with three wins from their last four outings.
The last three of those have seen Shrewsbury keep clean sheets too, including a 1-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in their opening fixture of 2022 last weekend.
Indeed, Shrewsbury have now won as many games in their last seven League One outings as they had managed in their opening 18, a run of form which has catapulted them out of the relegation zone and up to 14th in the table in the space of little more than a month.
A relegation battle is still more realistic than a playoff push this season for a team with the worst attacking record outside the bottom four, but should their marked improvement continue over the coming months then Cotterill will undoubtedly have his gaze looking up the table rather than over his shoulder.
Sunday’s match will be the Shrews’ third in a row away from home in this season’s FA Cup, having already overcome Stratford Town and Carlisle United by a 7-2 aggregate scoreline in the previous two rounds.
Victory at Anfield would be historic enough on its own should it occur, but Shrewsbury are also bidding to win three successive away games in the FA Cup proper for the very first time.
Should they do it then they will surely steal the headlines for the third round and, against what is expected to be a depleted Liverpool squad, they may fancy their chances of adding to the FA Cup’s giant-killing legend.
Liverpool form (all competitions):
Shrewsbury Town FA Cup form:
Shrewsbury Town form (all competitions):
We say: Liverpool 3-0 Shrewsbury Town
The exact scale of Liverpool’s COVID outbreak, and which players have been affected, remains uncertain, but it could be the case that an in-form Shrewsbury side never have a better chance to pick up a first-ever win at Anfield.
Despite that, we are still expecting Liverpool to progress through to the fourth round relatively comfortably. The visitors do not score many goals and even a second-string Liverpool side should have enough to see off League One opposition.