The Champions League group stage draw on Thursday gave Kopites some cheer this week following Monday night’s dismal defeat against Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium.
Selected in Group B, the draw was kind to Liverpool, giving them a good chance of progressing to the knockout stages but also throwing up fixtures against the reigning Champions that will really make the Reds feel they are back where they belong in the big time.
In this article, I take a closer look at who the Merseysiders will face when they play among Europe’s elite for the first time in five years.
Liverpool’s long European exile left them in pot three, making it inevitable that they would be drawn alongside one of the big boys from pot one. Avoiding the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, Liverpool were picked to face Spanish giants and current holders of the Champions League Real Madrid.
|Real Madrid beat local rivals Atletico 4-1 in the final last year|
Carlo Ancelotti’s side will pose a stern challenge for the Reds in two tantalising matches back-to-back at the end of October and beginning of November. The 10 times European Champions have a spent an eye watering amount of money amassing a squad full of Galacticos, including Cristiano Ronaldo (£80 million), Gareth Bale (£85 million) and new arrival James Rodriguez (£63 million).
However, impulsive club president Florentino Perez’s glamour signings are not always conducive to a cohesive squad, and Ancelotti faces the challenge of keeping so many star names happy.
Last time Liverpool faced Real Madrid, they smashed them 4-0 at Anfield to win 5-0 on aggregate and knock the Spaniards out of the Champions League at the last 16 stage. Rodgers would love to replicate that success this season, although he’ll settle for two points against the toughest team in the group.
Swiss side Basel could be the dark horses in Group B. The dominant force in Swiss football for the last decade, Basel have won the Swiss League seven times in the last ten years and are capable of causing an upset on their day. In last season’s Champions League, they secured a shock 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in Jose Mourinho’s first Champions League tie since returning to Chelsea.
|Basel celebrate a shock win at Stamford Bridge|
They also beat the Blues 1-0 in Switzerland, but fell short of qualifying for the knockout stages, finishing third and entering the Europa League, which they exited in spectacular fashion at the quarter final stages. Their seemingly insurmountable 3-0 first leg lead over Valencia was remarkably overturned on a crazy night at the Mestalla, as the Spaniards stunningly beat the Swiss 5-0 to reach the semis and embarrass Basel.
Liverpool have unpleasant memories of matches against Basel; in 2002, they travelled to Switzerland on the final matchday requiring a win to progress and, despite staging an Istanbul-esque fight back to recover from 3-0 down, they could only pull it back to 3-3 and were thus eliminated. Rodgers will be hoping to avoid a repeat of that outcome when Basel visit Anfield for the final matchday at the start of December.
The little known Bulgarian side with a name that hardly rolls off the tongue were founded only thirteen years ago. However, they have managed extraordinary success during their brief existence. In their first season in A Group- the imaginative name of the Bulgarian top division- they became only the third Bulgarian team to achieve a treble, winning the League, the Bulgarian Cup and the Bulgarian Supercup. In doing so, they emulated the more established and well-known sides CSKA Sofia and Levski Sofia.
The Eagles, whose stadium has a capacity of only 8000 and thus will not be used for Champions League matches, have won the Bulgarian A Group for three seasons running, and reached the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in remarkable fashion this year.
|A prize for anyone who can name a single Ludogorets player|
After progressing from the second qualifying round via victories over the amusingly named F91 Dudelange and Partizan Belgrade, Ludogorets beat Steaua Bucharest 6-5 on penalties with a little help from their 29-year old defender Cosmin Moti, who went in goal after keeper Vladislav Stoyanov saw red in the last minute of extra time. Moti stepped up to the plate and produced some heroics, saving two spot kicks after converting his own to send Ludgorets through.
Ludogorets should prove little more than whipping boys, and Liverpool must secure six points against them if they are to reach the knockout stages, although a trip to Bulgaria at the end of November is hardly an inviting prospect.
Liverpool couldn’t have wished for a better group. Group B is the perfect mix of beatable teams and big names, providing the Reds both the realistic prospect of progression and a couple of tasty European ties to get their teeth into too.
I cannot wait until it all begins in 19 days’ time!