The potential outcomes for the Champions League group stage draw were as varied as the starting lineups of Rafa Benitez. Reds across the world seemed split about what they wanted from the world’s most elite club competition. Some supporters dreamed of facing European giants while others were content with fishing for Europe’s minnows.
In Monaco on Thursday, Liverpool drew a bit of everything, which should suit them just fine.
Real Madrid – Pot 1 – Spain
Perhaps yesterday’s most enticing draw sees holders Real Madrid making the trip to Anfield this Fall. While a return leg at the Bernabeu is enthralling, the thought of a raucous Kop welcoming back European competition against such a high-profile opponent is salivating stuff, sure to stir memories of the Reds 4-0 thumping of Los Blancos in 2009. For the dreamers in our midst, it’s a chance to create an epic moment during our first year back in Europe.
The Spanish side need no introduction, with a squad worth more than €650 million based on Transfermarkt.com estimates – the most valuable in the world. With the arrival of World Cup Golden Boot winner, James Rodriguez and German pass master Toni Kroos, the rich got considerably richer this summer.
While those six points will admittedly be a challenge, the club had better luck with Pot 2 and Pot 4.
FC Basel – Pot 2 – Switzerland
Ask Jose Mourinho about FC Basel you’re sure to make him shudder. The Swiss champions beat Chelsea twice in the group stage last season, despite failing to qualify for the knockout round.
Basel are led by former Swiss international Marco Streller, 33, who’s had an impressive start to his season, netting 3 goals in 4 domestic matches. Last season, he managed to find the net 4 times in the European play, proof that the aging forward can still be a threat.
Basel shouldn’t be considered an easy opponent, particularly at home, as their recent European record shows. Since 2009, the side has only lost one home match by multiple goals. That was a 2-0 loss to Benfica in October of 2011.
Liverpool should expect a tight encounter at St. Jakob-Park, a small but tight venue that Basel have thrived in over the years. In fact, Basel managed to beat eventual finalists Bayern Munich 1-0 at home in the first leg of the Round of 16 in 2012.
Ludogorets Razgrad – Pot 4 – Bulgaria
Much less is know about Bulgarian side Ludogorets, the youngest club in the group stage.
Founded in 2001, the side has been labeled the Manchester City of Bulgaria due to its cash-fueled rise to the top of the domestic league. Ludogorets is coming off its third successive A Group winning campaign. Although the club has only participated in European competition for the last two seasons, Ludogorets boasts away victories against PSV Eindhoven and Lazio.
The club is also the feel-good-story of the tournament so far, qualifying for the group with the help of two shootout saves from their center back versus Steaua Bucharest after their keeper was sent off.
The club will play its European matches at Vasil Levski National Stadium in Sofia, as its home ground is too small to host continental fixtures according to UEFA regulations. With a capacity of more than 43,000, the National Stadium can hold the entire population of the town of Ludogorets with 8,000 seats to spare. If that doesn’t offer some perspective into how much of a Cinderella story Ludogorets is, nothing will.
Liverpool will open their European campaign at Anfield against the Bulgarian side, an almost ideal situation for Brendan Rodgers.
Road to the knockout round
Considering the possibilities, Liverpool supporters will be optimistic about the sides chances to progress to the Round of 16. Knowing that a loss to Real Madrid won’t necessarily be catastrophic, the Reds should have no reservations about taking it to the ten-time winners, especially at Anfield.
A winnable opening fixture could be key in helping Liverpool start the group stage on the right foot. However, the draw does present some real challenges when the overall fixture list is analyzed. The Reds will face both Real Madrid and Chelsea in a span of four days, and the final group stage match will be followed by league meetings with Manchester United and Arsenal. The squad will also be tested when they follow up the 223rd Merseyside Derby by playing Basel away in what should be a difficult fixture. Here is the schedule of Premier League, League Cup and group stage matches:
Sept. 16 – Ludogorets (H)
Sept. 20 – West Ham (A)
Sept. 23 – Middlesbrough (League Cup) (H)
Sept. 27 – Everton (H)
Oct. 1 – Basel (A)
Oct. 4 – West Brom (H)
Oct. 19 – QPR (A)
Oct. 22 – Real Madrid (H)
Sat. 25 – Hull (H)
Nov. 1 – Newcastle (A)
Nov. 4 – Real Madrid (A)
Nov. 8 – Chelsea (H)
Nov. 23 – Crystal Palace (A)
Nov. 26 – Ludogorets (A)
Nov. 29 – Stoke City (H)
Dec. 2 – Leicester (A)
Dec. 6 – Sunderland (H)
Dec. 9 – Basel (H)
Dec. 13 – Manchester United (A)
Dec. 20 – Arsenal (H)
The real question now is how the squad’s young players will perform under the bright lights of Europe for the first time. Will Sterling find another gear and carve out darting runs against non-English opposition? Can Dejan Lovren quickly adapt and lead a backline tasked with addressing different attacking styles of play each fortnight? And will the side simply have enough depth to handle the rigors of a European and domestic calendar?
Answers to these question can’t come soon enough, but one thing is for certain: Liverpool are back where they belong and big European nights at Anfield are on the horizon.