Liverpool know their most important player as Gary Neville is wrong about Real Madrid final fate

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The final day of the Premier League season was heartbreaking for Liverpool. Manchester City ultimately did their job to ensure the Premier League title slipped away by a point, averting what Gary Neville called ‘a disaster of monstrous proportions’. And to make matters worse, Jürgen Klopp’s side were hit by what looked like a significant injury blow less than a week before the Champions League final.

Shortly before half time, Thiago trudged off the Anfield pitch looking despondent. He would not return after the break, with James Milner taking his place.

The initial outlook appeared bleak, but since then the signals have been increasingly positive. Klopp said in his pre-final press conference that Thiago has a ‘good chance’ of playing in Paris, with the Spaniard set to take part in team training on Thursday after carrying out individual work.

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It remains to be seen whether he’s fit enough to start the game at the Stade de France, or whether he’ll have to settle for a spot on the bench. Should the medical department set a minutes restriction, Klopp will have something of a dilemma on his hands.

But above all else, it’s an enormous relief for Liverpool that, barring any setbacks, Thiago should feature in the French capital. The Reds’ record in games that he’s started this season is remarkable.

Thiago was named in the line-up for 17 Premier League matches. Liverpool won 15 (88 per cent), drew two (against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur) and did not lose a single one. More impressively still, they rattled in 51 goals and conceded just seven.

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Broaden it out to all competitions and it’s a similar story. A total of 25 starts, 21 wins, three draws and just one defeat (a meaningless one in the second leg against Inter Milan, as it turned out). In the process, Liverpool scored a total of 66 goals, conceding just 13.

There is, however, a more advanced and more reliable way of measuring its importance. You can take Liverpool’s expected goals (xG) for 90 minutes with Thiago on the pitch and subtract their expected goals against (xGA).

The 31-year-old comes out at an average of +1.82. Among all players in the squad who started at least five Premier League matches (ensuring there’s a decent sample size), that’s the strongest record.

Second place is shared by Luis Díaz and Kostas Tsimikas at +1.62. Joël Matip is in fourth place at +1.55, marginally ahead of center-back partner Virgil van Dijk and top goal-scorer Mohamed Salah (both +1.51).

Thiago’s position at the top of this leaderboard highlights the extent to which Liverpool are able to control games when he’s involved. After a difficult first season in an injury-ravaged side, Thiago has shown why Liverpool deviated from their traditional transfer policy to bring him in, emerging as one of the most important players.

It’s hard to imagine that Liverpool would be gunning for a treble on Saturday had he been missing the majority of the season. On the flip side, they might even have won the Premier League were he not sidelined for ultimately damaging draws against Brighton and Brentford as well as the defeat at Leicester City in 2021.

Neville has predicted that Liverpool will lose on Saturday, arguing that ‘the midfield of Madrid changes it all’. And all three are, admittedly, world-class winners. Casemiro is unquestionably one of the best in his position, Luka Modrić is awe-inspiring in his timelessness and Toni Kroos, according to compatriot Klopp, ‘can change the game’ with his passing ability.

That daunting combination makes it all the more significant that Fabinho and Thiago are on course to be fit. Liverpool will themselves be able to deploy top-drawer options more than capable of holding their own against an iconic trio – whatever Neville may think.

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