Liverpool fans, like the fans of most clubs with a storied past, believe that Champions League is a competition their team ought to be playing in every season. Only a handful of clubs have won the premier European competition more times than Liverpool (five times). Liverpool fans do not miss a chance to remind supporters of other sides that their club has been victorious on multiple occasions in the elite European competition.
So, the last few years out of that competition have been tough on the club and their supporters to say the least. The club has suffered in terms of clout in the transfer market, in addition to the financial losses, while the supporters have eagerly awaited the return of the glory-filled European nights at Anfield. When they reached the group stage last – in 2014-15- their European performances were so abject that most fans would want those memories erased.
However, their team ensured the return of these nights by handsomely defeating Hoffenheim at Anfield in the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League playoff. The German team did not have much of a chance after the Merseysiders won in Germany the week before, but the blistering start by Mane, Firmino and Emre Can ensured that Liverpool stormed into the group stages of the Champions League.
What followed the next day was a group stage draw in Monaco. When Liverpool’s opponents in the group stages had been decided (in Group E), the news was met with a mixed reaction.
Liverpool drew Sevilla (La Liga), Spartak Moscow (Russian Premier Liga), and NK Maribor (Prv Liga – Slovenia). After their exploits against Arsenal on Sunday, the Reds are ranked 18th by Euro Club Index with 3,316 points. Their major competitors in the group – Sevilla are ranked 14th with 3,374 points. Spartak Moscow are ranked 47th with 2,718 points and Maribor are ranked 187th with 1,952 points.
While most fans were happy with this relatively easier draw, some Liverpool fans were found lamenting the absence of a European major in their group. I would side with the happier fans in this as if Liverpool can ensure their passage into the last 16 and beyond, the European majors that the fans are missing in the group encounters will arrive at Anfield anyway.
This group puts them in the best possible situation to make that progress happen. Going by the Euro Club Index values, this is the easiest group that the Reds could have got. But would it be all a smooth sail between now and December? Or do any of their opponents have it in them to stun Liverpool? Let us take a look
Liverpool’s last European match was the 2016 Europa League final, played in Basel against a Sevilla side that was quickly gaining the reputation of serial Europa League winners. After turning in a meek performance for the first half of that final, Sevilla gave ample proof of why they had won four UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues prior to that final and ended up winning the title that season as well. Liverpool now have a chance to avenge that defeat but unless they buy a defender or two in the next 3-4 days, they will face Sevilla twice in the group stages with the same shaky defense that played a major role in the meltdown in May 2016.
This is the third consecutive season when the side from Seville will be playing in the UCL group stage. They have not gone beyond the last 16 in the Champions League, having been knocked out at that stage by Leicester in 2016-17. Although a lot has changed for Sevilla since that Europa League victory, Liverpool can be assured of two extremely difficult matches against Sevilla. Their home leg on 14 September is preceded by a trip to Etihad and followed by a visit from Burnley. Liverpool’s trip to Sevilla is sandwiched between matches against Southampton and Chelsea. Both the legs are going to be difficult as they are in the vicinity of matches with the major Premier League rivals.
The Russian side last appeared in Champions League group stages in 2012-13. They have reached the quarter finals of the competition once in 1995-96 but that was before many in the current Liverpool side were even born. Spartak have met Liverpool as well in one of their Group Stages in 2002-03, when they finished at the bottom of the group, while Liverpool also missed progress to last 16 as they finished third in the group.
Spartak showed scintillating form last season to end up as the Russian champions, but in this season that form has dipped significantly. They have lost important derbies against CSKA and Locomotiv, while also losing to Zenit. Still they represent a formidable challenge for the Reds and Liverpool will not want to underestimate them.
In terms of the fixtures, the away fixture to Spartak comes in late September – the third away game in a four-game sequence. It is preceded by a league match with Leicester City and followed by a match with Newcastle United. The home leg, which is the final group stage game, will be sandwiched between a trip to Brighton and a Merseyside derby at Anfield. Neither the fixtures, nor Spartak’s current form, suggest that Liverpool should be worried too much by them but the Reds cannot afford to be complacent either.
The Slovenian champions do not evoke the same kind of respect that Sevilla or Spartak do, but they are experienced European campaigners. This is their third foray in to the UCL group stages. Their last group stage campaign coincided with Liverpool’s last campaign as well in 2014-15. In that season, Maribor’s crowning achievement in Europe was holding a rampant Chelsea (en route to winning the Premier League) for a draw at home.
Liverpool’s trip to Maribor is sandwiched between two tough fixtures – Manchester United at home and then Tottenham at Wembley. Their home leg is far more favourable, sandwiched between a home game against Huddersfield and an away game against West Ham. Liverpool should ensure that Maribor do not become a banana skin on their way to last 16, just like Ludurogets had thrown spanner in their works in 2014-15.
To ensure progress in Europe, Liverpool need to come out of the group stages at the top and to achieve this, they need to ensure that they win both their games against Maribor and at least the home game against Spartak. These results and a few points from the other three games, can help them top the group.
While Liverpool fans would love to dream of another Champions League title, currently it seems like a far-fetched goal. Reds’ goal this season, should be to go as far as possible into the competition and ensure that they get to participate again in it next year, giving the likes of Naby Keita (joining next summer) a platform from which a UCL title bid can be launched.