Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp admits leaving Xherdan Shaqiri at home was a decision he never expected to make but has defended the controversial move ahead of the Champions League match against Red Star Belgrade in Serbia.
The 27-year-old forward, whose parents are Kosovar-Albanian, was born in the former Yugoslav city of Gjilan which is now part of Kosovo, a state Serbia still refuses to recognise despite its declaration of independence in 2008.
Shaqiri angered Serbia fans in a match at the World Cup wearing boots featuring the Kosovo flag and making an ‘Albanian Eagle’ celebration and was certain to receive a hostile welcome in Belgrade.
For that reason Klopp said a pragmatic decision was taken to leave the player at home to allow the focus to remain on football.
“I constantly have to make decisions that I never expected before. I was confronted with that and that is the decision. That is all,” he said.
“Absolutely not aware of any security issues or whatever. The only thing that I can say about it was that it was common sense. It was common sense to just make the decision, not to force anything.
We come here wanting to play football. If he came here now and was involved then all the questions would be about him. That makes no sense.
“We have to concentrate on football. We have to focus on football. That’s what we want to do and that is why I made that decision.”
Locally Klopp’s decision has been viewed as a sensible move, with tensions likely to have run high at the Rajko Mitic Stadium had Shaqiri appeared.
It did not prevent Klopp having to field a number of questions about the Switzerland international, whom he said fully accepted his decision.
Asked what the player’s reaction was the Reds boss said: “‘OK, boss’.
“I will not make it ‘Shaqiri said’ or ‘wanted’ actually. That makes no sense. It makes no sense for you and it makes no sense for him. That’s why. He said, ‘Ok, boss’.
“It was a difficult situation if you want, usually you don’t think about things like that before a game but we had to think about it. That was the decision and with the decision the discussion ended at that moment for us.”
Klopp admits he did not want anything to inflame the already combustible atmosphere at a ground known locally as the Marakana but accepts by leaving out the player he intensified the debate, at least in the pre-match build-up.
Maybe if Shaq would have played they (the crowd) go for him or whatever, I don’t know, but I didn’t think that far,” Klopp added.
“I didn’t want to have the discussion we are having now before the game.”
As Group C leaders, with Napoli and Paris St Germain playing each other, Liverpool could take a big step towards qualification with a win against Red Star, whom they took apart 4-0 at Anfield.
They currently lead the Italians by a point and the Parisians by two.
“It would help massively, of course. That is how it is. I don’t think about the other game but it is obvious they play against each other so they both can’t get three points,” he said.
“If we could win here tomorrow it would give us a bit of control but only until the next game because everything is open again.
“Even if Paris loses, they can still get 10 points by winning the two games and the last one is here. That could be possible, at least.
“It is really important you focus on the job ahead of you because it is so difficult here, so different.”
For his part, Red Star Belgrade coach Vladan Milojevic believes his team are playing for the pride of Serbia tonight.
Milojevic hopes home advantage, after playing two away matches in which their supporters were banned from attending by Uefa after incidents of pitch invasions and the setting off of fireworks, will help.
“For the club, Belgrade, Serbia, and the whole region tomorrow is an important occasion, and we are looking forward to a spectacle. We will try to make the best of the game,” Milojevic said..
“One of the best teams in Europe and the world comes to us. I think it will be a real spectacle in the stadium and an atmosphere awaits us that only our fans can create.
“We know that we did not have the support of our fans for the previous two matches.
Everyone knows what it means to play at the Marakana, no-one feels comfortable with it, and it puts wind in our sails, because the atmosphere is much different than at other stadiums.
“We get extra energy from the stands, and although this may not have much impact on the Liverpool players, I believe this will be a fascinating atmosphere for them.
“We need to be concentrated all the time, because every pause and the smallest little thing is immediately punished.”
Red Star’s former Chelsea midfielder Marko Marin, back in the squad after injury ruled him out at Anfield, knows they have to be wary.
“We know what awaits us; Liverpool are an extremely strong team,” he said.
“We can’t afford to attack all the time because the Reds are extremely dangerous on the counter-attack. It’s going to be difficult.”