Fabinho is “one of the best in the world at number six”, Jurgen Klopp said after the Brazilian helped Liverpool beat RB Leipzig to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.
The 27-year-old midfielder has had to fill in at centre-back for large parts of this season because of injuries to Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, while also suffering from a number of fitness problems of his own.
But restored to his preferred position in the centre of the Reds midfield, he excelled in the last-16 second-leg win over Leipzig, secured through second-half goals from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
It keeps alive the club’s hopes of a second European title in three seasons at the end of a campaign where their title defence has fallen apart following a run of recent home defeats.
“The performance and the level we played tonight was really good and necessary,” Liverpool manager Klopp said. “We did really well. Defending-wise [it] was really good. [The] front three worked well together – but missed a couple of chances in the first half.
On Fabinho, he said: “We have to see what solutions we can find for the next games – but number six is his position.
“It was our hope to keep him there for the season. He is one of the best in the world in that position, that is clear – not only defending-wise but creating as well. He is so important to us.”
For 70 minutes in Budapest’s Puskas Arena, Liverpool were extremely wasteful in front of goal, but sealed the tie when Salah cut inside and finished low shortly after Leipzig substitute Alexander Sorloth had struck the bar with a header.
Mane made absolutely sure with a neat finish from Divock Origi’s superb cross.
Klopp’s side will find out their last-eight opponents when the draw is made on Friday, 19 March.
“The only reason you play in the Champions League is to win but we are not silly,” Klopp continued on BBC Radio 5 live.
“We will wait and see what is possible and we wait for the draw. It will be tough whoever we get.
“We are [dangerous opponents] but it is nothing really. I don’t want to create headlines about our hopes.
“We didn’t have momentum in the Premier League but we have games to get that back and that would help us in the Champions League.”
Salah and Mane offer hope of salvation
The rapid, shocking decline in domestic form suffered by Klopp’s side of late means that lifting the Champions League trophy is beginning to look like their more likely route back into the competition next season.
Six home defeats on the spin have sent Liverpool tumbling down the table to eighth, seven points off fourth place.
During that run they have looked a shadow of the side that utterly dominated the English top flight in 2019-20, with much-publicised injuries and resultant shuffling of a settled side stripping it of cogency and confidence.
Wednesday’s display was a welcome step in the right direction for the Reds.
The central defence retained an unavoidable rookie feel, but in front of it the presence of Fabinho alongside Thiago and Diogo Jota in attack gave Liverpool greater solidity, fluency and attacking threat.
That said, they could make their lives an awful lot easier by taking a few of the multitude of chances they create.
Salah, Mane and Jota all had big opportunities to put the tie to bed before half-time, but were either denied by Leipzig keeper Peter Gulacsi or missed the target altogether.
Salah was especially at fault, seeing a shot saved after breaking clear before later firing over from close range following Trent Alexander-Arnold’s neat pull-back.
They were fortunate that the German side – such prolific scorers in the Bundesliga – were equally profligate.
Hampered by the absence of the injured Angelino, Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann spent the second half sending forwards on to the pitch from the bench, including Justin Kluivert, son of former Dutch striker Patrick, but to no avail.
The fight left them at the moment Salah’s low shot hit the back of the net, with Mane taking advantage soon after.
The duo’s return to goalscoring form was timely in the context of this game but even more so for the sake of the Reds’ season as a whole, which is still there to be salvaged.
“The result will help but we know Monday at Wolves [in the Premier League] is a different game,” Klopp added. “If we play like that tonight it will be a problem for Wolves.
“The game tonight was a summary of our season. We are good, created chances, didn’t finish them all off.”