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 By Dave Usher

Liverpool should be confident but can't afford to overlook Porto in Champions League

Liverpool will play their first match in the knockout stages of the Champions League in nine years when they face Porto on Wednesday night.

It was 2009 when the Reds last progressed this far in Europe's most prestigious competition. They overcame Real Madrid but were then beaten narrowly over two legs by Chelsea in the next round. It was a bitter pill for Kopites to swallow. Had they known how long they'd have to wait to sample the knockout stages again, it would have been an even more traumatic experience.

Between 2004-09 Liverpool were one of the most consistent sides in the Champions League. They won it once, lost in a final two years later and were a permanent fixture in the latter stages of the competition. Then it all came to an abrupt, unexpected end.

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Regardless of whether the Reds progress past Porto or not, simply being back on this stage has been an important step in their road back to relevance under Jurgen Klopp. This is where Liverpool need to be every year. Chelsea, Arsenal and the Manchester clubs have been virtual ever presents in the knockout stages over the last 15 years or so, but Liverpool (and indeed Tottenham) now look to be in a strong position to challenge that status quo.

Securing a top-four finish this year is vitally important for both Liverpool and Spurs if they are to establish themselves as regular Champions League contenders, but both clubs also have an opportunity to make some serious waves in this year's competition.

With Spurs having to face Italian giants Juventus, Liverpool look to have been handed the easier path to the next round but Porto should not be underestimated.

The Portuguese club have a rich European pedigree and are unbeaten domestically this season, having only conceded 10 goals. They did lose two of their Champions League group fixtures though, so they are far from invincible.

They should present a sterner test than any of the sides Liverpool faced in the group stages, but the Merseysiders' style of play is suited to facing the better sides and they are prolific scorers away from home, so they need not fear anybody left in the competition.

Liverpool have been highly impressive in Europe this year for the most part. They haven't always had the results to show for it but some of the football they've played has been devastating and they found the net 23 times in just six group games. Only PSG (25 goals) scored more.

Liverpool will be favoured to advance past Porto and into the last 8 of the Champions League.

With no Premier League game this weekend, Klopp does not have to worry too much about overplaying his stars and is therefore unlikely to make too many changes. Emre Can's suspension explains why Jordan Henderson was given the weekend off as the Reds recorded a routine victory at Southampton.

The skipper should return to take his place in midfield while there must be a temptation to recall James Milner, whose experience and tactical discipline is always invaluable on occasions such as this. Milner has been a key player in Europe this season and leads the Champions League in assists with five.

Klopp has hinted that he is abandoning the rotation policy he's used with his goalkeepers this season. Quite right too. It made sense when Simon Mignolet was number one and Loris Karius needed games, but now that the roles are reversed there is little point in continuing with it as Mignolet's days at the club are now clearly numbered.

There's no coming back from this latest demotion and although Karius himself may not be the long-term answer, he needs to be given a run of games to prove himself one way or the other. Playing Mignolet, having given him endless chances over the greater part of five years, is pointless at this stage.

Klopp made the mistake of bringing Mignolet back in for the FA Cup tie with West Brom and the Belgian endured a torrid time as the Reds were beaten at home by the Premier League's bottom club.

Virgil van Dijk will presumably get his first taste of European action with the club following his January transfer and he could be a key man as the Reds' defence is bound to come under some intense pressure from the talented Portuguese side.

It will be interesting to see how Klopp approaches this game, as recently, Liverpool have adopted a more pragmatic counter-attacking approach and haven't been pressing as aggressively. It's a tactic that can work to great effect but only if they defend well as a team. If they get that side of it right then more often than not the attacking side of their game takes care of itself.

As ever though, the most important thing when playing the first leg away from home in Europe, is to ensure the tie is still alive for the return fixture. Anything more than that is a bonus.

Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.

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