Thiago Alcantara: Why did Liverpool sign midfielder to not play him against Real Madrid, asks Paul Merson

Liverpool entertain Real Madrid on Wednesday looking to overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit; Arsenal travel to Slavia Prague on Thursday having been held to 1-1 draw in their Europa League quarter-final; follow both games with live blogs and reports on Sky Sports digital channels

Thiago Liverpool vs Newcastle PA
Image: Thiago Alcantara has played 22 times for Liverpool this season across all competitions

Paul Merson is back with his column and this week the former Arsenal and England forward tells us why Liverpool should have played Thiago Alcantara against Real Madrid, and why Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has to start for Arsenal in Prague on Thursday.

The Sky Sports pundit believes Liverpool face an uphill task trying to turn around a 3-1 deficit when they host Real Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday night.

However, if Jurgen Klopp's side are to pull off another great escape at Anfield, then there is one Liverpool player who has to start against the 13-time winners, according to Merson.

Merson has also called on Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta to be bold with his team selection for what he believes is their biggest match of the campaign in their Europa League last-eight clash at Slavia Prague on Thursday evening.

Why did Liverpool sign Thiago if he is not going to play against Real?

I watched Liverpool against Aston Villa on Saturday and I was shocked, it just did not have that connection, the spark was not there.

If the crowd was there on Wednesday night and they were chasing down Real Madrid, I'm all over them, there is no place like Anfield or Celtic Park on a Champions League night and I have seen them turn it around against better teams than this. But with no one there, I just cannot see it as having no crowds at Anfield has not helped Liverpool at all.

It was hard for them [centre-backs Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips] in the first leg, they are two youngsters, one lad is from Schalke, the other lad Phillips has come in and it is hard for them.

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I would have tried to mix it up a bit and play three at the back, I've said it before, to give them more protection, with Fabinho in the middle, but the horse has bolted now and you need to get forwards on the pitch.

Alexander-Arnold completes late Reds comeback 3:17
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool's win against Aston Villa

I was shocked last week that Thiago Alcantara did not play, I thought that was what he was brought in for. They won the league without him, so what was the point of bringing him in? That is his game, it is open and everybody gets on the ball and passes it - and he keeps the ball and is very composed on it. I literally thought he [Klopp] had brought him in for those occasions, they have not brought him in to win the league.

But fair play to Trent Alexander-Arnold the other day, he gets a lot of stick about his positional play, but he is a victim of his own success because he has been so good that when he has a couple of bad games, everybody says, 'oh my god…'

I was shocked last week that Thiago Alcantara did not play, I thought that was what he was brought in for. They won the league without him, so what was the point of bringing him in?
Paul Merson

But what I like about him is he keeps on going and going, he never hides, goes to Arsenal and puts in one of the balls of the season, it was mind blowing, like David Beckham. And then he scores the winner against Villa when he could easily have said, 'I'll sit on the halfway line, I do not need this coming to me with all the stick I'm getting'.

But he does not and fair play, I like that and have a lot of respect for him doing that as it is very easy to hang out and say, 'I do not want to do this, what happens if I balloon a ball into the stands…?'

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Aubameyang must start in attack for the biggest game of Arsenal's season

Aubameyang was an unused substitute during the 2-1 loss to Tottenham
Image: Aubameyang was dropped and was an unused substitute during Arsenal's recent 2-1 loss to Tottenham

It is a big game (against Slavia in the Europa League quarter-final, second leg), but at the end of the day you can only play with the hand you are dealt. There are a lot of players who are there before he [Arteta] was there, and I feel for him in a way as they are so up and down.

They should have finished the game against Slavia last week, the chances they missed and Alexandre Lacazette's is an absolute sitter when he hit the bar, it is ridiculous.

They are 10th in the league and this is Arsenal, let's not forget. I would not say get rid of Arteta if they lost this game, though, not a chance.

But I think they win this game, there is a lot of turning around there, but they have to start getting a plan, a five-year plan. This will not happen overnight, this needs to start now because at the moment they are relying on Bukayo Saka, who is their go-to man, and Emile Smith Rowe when he plays. And no disrespect, that should not be the case.

Arsenal's head coach Mikel Arteta and Arsenal's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pose with the trophy after the FA Cup final 0:58
Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta's decision to drop Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the north London derby against Tottenham was a 'masterstroke', according to Paul Merson

A lot of the players that are there have some of the biggest transfer fees in Arsenal's history and they are there and are in the middle of the table - who is buying these players? They need to get someone in again and go, we have a five-year plan, who do we bring in as a recruitment manager and we need to start targeting players and we need to plan, because at the moment there is no plan, it is all off the cuff.

They give Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all that money, a big contract, but he is 31 years of age, so we are back into the Mesut Ozil situation again.

If I need to win a football match and I know I will get chances there - I might not get many, but they will get chances Arsenal - I need my best goal scorer on the pitch.
Paul Merson

Something is going on with Aubameyang, though, I do not know what it is. Last Thursday was the biggest game Arsenal have played in for a long time, you have to weigh it up now as there have not been crowds in for a year or so because of lockdown. Arsenal need European football next season, they need to come back, hit the ground running when the fans are back and there needs to be a feel-good factor.

It is not cheap watching Arsenal and for the standards of the team, it is expensive. It was their biggest game last Thursday and their biggest earner and name was sitting on the bench.

So that tells you everything and it is another Ozil situation…

If I need to win a football match and I know I will get chances there - I might not get many, but they will get chances Arsenal - I need my best goalscorer on the pitch.

If he does not bring anything else to the party, he will put the ball in the back of the net. And even if he is four yards out and he taps it in, that is what you call a good goal because no one else is there to tap it in, he is the one there. He finds himself at the back post tapping them in and there is an art to that.

So for me, he plays, as they have to win. You have to get your goalscorers on the pitch when you have to win. If you do not have to win and you are protecting the lead, then you do not have him in the team as you want people tracking back for the team.

1:13
Mikel Arteta lamented Arsenal's inability to take their chances following their 1-1 Europa League quarter-final draw against Slavia Prague

So I take a chance, I have to play my star man - we only gave him a new contract last season, so what has changed?

I like Lacazette, he is a good footballer, he holds the ball up and brings players into the game, he is decent.

And I would play him up front alongside Aubameyang with three in attack with Saka or Nicolas Pepe and say to them, 'just get us a goal, we will defend' and they will cause havoc.

They should cause havoc - they are all good players - and it is not like they are trying to improve them.

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Chelsea need a goal scorer and Aguero ticks every box

He [Sergio Aguero] ticks the box for me and the way Chelsea play - Chelsea are dominant in football matches, they dictate games and have a lot of possession, they play neat and tidy football around the box and they are looking for that little ball.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Chelsea's win over Crystal Palace

They are not trying to hit a ball from the halfway line into a load of space, you are playing at Chelsea and when you kick off at Chelsea, you are immediately faced with 10 men behind the ball, so you need an Aguero who is sharp over three to five yards, that little ball down the side and into the box.

I like Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud, they are good players, but are they going to win you the Premier League? No, and I say that because they are not going to be in the top five or six goal scorers in the league.

Chelsea forward Timo Werner (PA)
Image: Chelsea forward Timo Werner has struggled in his debut campaign at Stamford Bridge

You look at Chelsea now and Mason Mount and Abraham have got six goals and are their joint-top scorers in the league, so that is why Chelsea are where they are. If you put someone in that team who has scored 20 goals and are second behind Harry Kane and Mo Salah, then that could be another 10, 11, 12, 15 points, it could be 14 winning goals.

I think they need a centre forward who can score goals as Timo Werner has not worked. I said Kai Havertz would be a player, a young lad who has arrived with a big price tag and with everything that is going on in the world, he had 'long Covid' and that affected him.

I like Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud, they are good players, but are they going to win you the Premier League? No.
Paul Merson

But when you watched him the other day, he is a class act, he is proper, I really think he will be a superstar and in time to come, he will be special.

I'm not sure about Werner, though, I do not think it is working. I watch him and when you are buying that type of player for that type of money, I'd want a little bit more of a finished product for what I have got. There looks like there is a lot to work on, which is strange really.

Havertz, I can swallow that as he is a young kid, but this lad does things on the pitch and you are like, 'really?' He will go down the wing and just cross it into the box when no-one is in there. I've been disappointed with him to be honest and for me, I would try and see what I can do with him this summer.

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