BELGRADE (Reuters) - Liverpool left Swiss forward Xherdan Shaqiri out of the squad for Tuesday’s Champions League visit to Red Star Belgrade so they could avoid any distractions, manager Juergen Klopp said.
Shaqiri, an ethnic Albanian of Kosovar heritage, would have faced the prospect of a hostile reception from Red Star fans for the way he celebrated a goal at this year’s World Cup in Russia.
Shaqiri scored the winner when Switzerland beat Serbia 2-1 in a group match and made a gesture which appeared to imitate the eagle on Albania’s flag. The 27-year-old also had Kosovo’s flag imprinted on his boots.
Serbia refuses to recognise the independence of its former southern province Kosovo, whose 1.8 million people are mostly ethnic Albanians, which broke away 10 years ago.
“We are here to play football,” Klopp told a news conference on Monday ahead of the Group C game. “Shaqiri will play a lot of games for us but not tomorrow.
“We are in Serbia and we respect that 100 percent. That’s the world. Politics has always influenced life – on the planet I live at least.
“We have to make sure that we remain focused on football. That’s why we decided what we decided.”
Soccer’s world governing body FIFA fined Shaqiri 10,000 Swiss francs ($9,970.09) for his gesture, which was deemed to be “unsporting behaviour contrary to the principles of fair-play”. He denied that the celebration had political overtones.
Liverpool go into Tuesday’s clash top of the section with six points from three games, ahead of Napoli on five and third-placed Paris St Germain on four. Red Star have one point.
Asked if they could not afford to drop points away to the group underdogs, Klopp said there would still be everything to play whatever happens at Red Star’s Rajko Mitic stadium.
“It’s not like we have no chance of getting points from the following two games,” said the German coach.
“Paris is not an easy place to go to and then we are at home to Napoli but tomorrow is not our only chance.
“I don’t think we should head into the game putting more pressure on to our shoulders and thinking that if we don’t win we have no chance (of reaching the knockout stages).
“You can enjoy the challenge as well and tomorrow is going to be a fantastic atmosphere. I love playing in a big atmosphere with the home fans supporting their teams and we have to make sure we are ready for that.”
Earlier on Monday, Red Star coach Vladan Milojevic said he expected his side to be a different team to the one crushed 4-0 at Anfield in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago.
“The atmosphere here is fervent and it gives the players extra energy,” he said.
“I am sure Liverpool won’t be bothered, but they will be fascinated. We’ve been to Anfield, it’s a cracking atmosphere there but still a far cry from the noise level here.
“This is a massive event for the whole of Serbia and the region because Liverpool are one of the best teams in the world. It should be a spectacular game.”
($1 = 1.0030 Swiss francs)
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris