By Oliver Trust
BERLIN, Feb. 5 (Xinhua) -- The roles seem clearly defined. When Premier League leaders Liverpool cross swords with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich in the first leg of their last-16 round Champions League duel on February 19, the Reds seem the big favorites.
Looking at Liverpool's enticing football and incisive forwards such as Mohamed Salah (16 league goals), Sadio Mane (11) and Roberto Firmino (9), fans and pundits have pondered how the struggling 2018 German champions are going to survive.
Some predict Liverpool's high-speed network will smash through Bayern's defense. Others say the Reds will have Bayern for dinner.
The Bavarians' 47-year-old coach Niko Kovac has been deeply concerned lately over his side's weak defensive performance. While Liverpool can count on a solid backline (15 goals conceded in 25 games) Bayern's defense has been altogether more porous (23 goals in 20 games). Those statistics have not been that bad for eight years.
Stability at the back is the key to success and the reason for Bayern's current problems, Kovac has revealed. There seems little doubt that Bayern can only progress to the next round after a satisfactory result in the first leg.
What are Kovac's best options for parking the bus and stabilize his team's defense and midfield?
Mats Hummels or Jerome Boateng? For a while, the two 2014 World Cup winners have battled it out over the vacant spot next to Niklas Sule. Boateng was sidelined in the previous three games and complained about unfair treatment. Hummels had seemingly won the race of the golden-agers, but made too many mistakes after the winter break. Meanwhile, Sule has not been the perfect solution Kovac had hoped for, but remains his first choice.
Austrian international David Alaba seems booked at left-back, while the right-back position set to be taken by one of Rafinha or Joshua Kimmich, in case the German international moves in from midfield.
This is Bayern's overcrowded zone, with Kimmich, Thiago Alcantara, Leon Goretzka, Renato Sanches and Javi Martinez applying for two spots in front of the back four.
Former Bayern captain Lothar Matthaus recommended Martinez next to shooting star Leon Goretzka, with the 1990 World Cup winner calling the Spaniard Bayern's best tackler. A safer version could see Martinez partnered by Kimmich, with either Thiago or James Rodriguez leading the attack further forward, as Thomas Muller is banned for both games after his red card in the last group match against Ajax.
With first-choice stopper Manuel Neuer recovering from a torn ligament in his right thumb, Bayern seem to have a goalkeeper problem. Sven Ulreich might have proved his quality when replacing Neuer for several months last season but is currently lacking match experience after Neuer's return.
Neuer's participation would significantly increase Bayern's chances of surviving Liverpool's onslaught and preserve their opportunity to strike back in the second leg on their home ground.
"Against a fast-acting opponent, we can't defend offensively but close the center," Kovac demanded.