As Fabinho crumpled to the ground at Villa Park, there was a collective sharp intake of breath from the away supporters. Of all Liverpool’s midfielders, you could argue that Fabinho is the one they can least afford to lose, but it now looks as though the Brazilian is facing a race to recover in time for the Champions League final against Real Madrid on May 28th.
Jürgen Klopp’s side are considered slight favourites in the Liverpool vs Real Madrid betting as it stands, but with Fabinho a doubt for the showpiece, the Spanish giants will be licking their lips at the prospect of dominating the midfield battle.
The reason for Liverpool supporters’ apprehension stems back to last season. When Fabinho was either sidelined or forced to play in central defence due to the club’s injury crisis, his absence was greatly felt. The Reds became too easy to play against — there was no bite in midfield. It was no coincidence that, when Fabinho returned to his familiar defensive midfield role towards the end of the season, results picked up dramatically and the team ended up securing Champions League football for this season.
The prospect of being without their midfield enforcer is difficult for Liverpool’s fans to reckon with. There is strength in depth in Klopp’s squad, but it’s fair to say that no one can replace Fabinho like-for-like. The Brazilian has a unique ability to get under the skin of opposition players, screening the defence and breaking up play in his own distinctly languid style.
One obvious solution for Liverpool would be to start Jordan Henderson in the holding midfield role, with Thiago Alcântara and Naby Keïta either side of him. However, Henderson does not have the same levels of tactical discipline as Fabinho, and Liverpool fans will remember Keïta’s shockingly poor performance against Real Madrid last season, as the Reds bowed out in the quarter-finals. There’s no doubt that Klopp would likely start a triumvirate of Fabinho, Thiago and Henderson in the final, but it remains to be seen if that will be possible.
Real Madrid’s midfield is ageing, but they are still a hugely talented trio. Casemiro, Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos have the ability to unpick Liverpool if they are given the opportunity, and Fabinho’s role would be to break up their rhythm and ensure the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Joël Matip are protected from their midfield wizardry. Would Henderson be able to perform that function? That is a difficult question to answer.
Even if Fabinho does pass a fitness test and is able to start, there will be worries that he won’t be fully up to speed after few weeks out of action. That in itself creates a risk for starting him, and when you consider all these factors together, it’s clear that Klopp has a real headache to deal with.
Of course, it would be too much to suggest that Fabinho’s presence or absence will decide this Champions League final. After all, both Liverpool and Real Madrid possess some of the best attacking talent in world football, and whichever strike force can find their form will probably end up laying claim to the trophy.
However, the injury to Fabinho creates a seed of doubt for Liverpool, and Real Madrid might just gain that extra degree of confidence as a result.