Liverpool fans have waited quite impatiently for a chance to play in the elite tier of Europe for the last two seasons. By next week this time, they will be preparing for their first European tie in more than a year.
The last time Liverpool played in Champions League, they performed miserably in a state of post-Suarez hangover. Losses against Real Madrid were expected, but an away loss along with a home draw against Basel and then an away draw against the minnows Ludogorets meant that limiting Real Madrid to a one-goal margin in Spain was the crowning glory of that season.
But this season, there is much more positivity and anticipation among Liverpool fans. Jurgen Klopp has the team playing lightning fast attacking the football. The Reds have just brushed aside the fourth-best Bundesliga side to clinch a group stage berth. This eagerness has pundits asking the question – how far can Liverpool go in this season’s Champions League? This leads to a corollary question – can Liverpool get past the group stages this time around? I believe that not only will they get past the group stage, but for me, they are the favourites to top the group. Let us take a look at the three reasons why I believe in them this season.
In 2014-15, Liverpool had just sold Luis Suarez who had been crucial to their eventually failed tilt at the title in 2013-14. Having sold their best player, Brendan Rodgers and the transfer committee had amassed several players who were not at all comparable to the Uruguayan. As a replacement striker, they had signed Ricky Lambert – yep an ageing striker from Southampton. No matter how much imagination we throw into our thinking, that team can never match this current lot, who are missing their best player but are still scoring goals for fun.
Liverpool have drawn Sevilla (La Liga), Spartak Moscow (Russian Premier Liga), and NK Maribor (Prv Liga – Slovenia). None of them is a name that can fill the Reds’ hearts with fear. Sevilla did beat them in the Europa League final in 2015-16. They are not to be underestimated, but they are not as strong as they were. They also bring along with them an incentive in the form of retribution for that final loss.
The Reds have played Spartak in the group stages once before, and they scored a lot of goals against the Russian side. Maribor are the minnows this season and hence the slippery banana skin. But, as per Euroclub Index, Liverpool have the kindest draw this season, as compared to the other four English clubs.
In 2014-15, Rodgers named almost a second-string side at Santiago Bernabéu to keep his squad fit for the crucial league fixture that followed. Klopp does not have to worry about such fixtures a lot right now. Barring the trip to Slovenia, the other five fixtures at least have one game against a bottom-ten (in last season’s league table) side or a promoted side, either preceding the European fixture or following it. Liverpool could not have asked for a better draw or fixture list.
Does this mean that Liverpool are favourites to win the Champions League this time? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But these factors ensure that if they play as expected, the Reds can top the group, which in turn will lead to a slightly favourable draw in the last 16. Once Liverpool reach the final eight (if they do), their fans can then dream of glory?