Unknown hovers over Liverpool in UCL
After four seasons without Champions League football, Liverpool could not have wished for a better re-introduction to the big time having been matched up with mighty Real Madrid. The reigning European champions and biggest draw in world football represent the perfect "welcome back" present for Brendan Rodgers' side, and in many ways this was just about the best draw Liverpool could have wished for.
Being in Pot Three had opened up all manner of permutations for Liverpool, not all of them pleasant. Had the draw been particularly unkind they could have found themselves pitted against not only Real Madrid, but PSG and Roma too. Fans love the glamour ties -- and Liverpool fans especially relish those great European nights at Anfield -- but you also want to progress to the knockout stage. With that in mind, Liverpool got the best of both worlds. There is no more glamorous fixture than Real Madrid, but FC Basel and Ludogorets were among the "easier" opponents they could have drawn from Pots Two and Four.
Liverpool will now go into their group expecting to qualify, be it as group winners or (more likely) as runners-up, but supporters still have that huge game against Real Madrid to look forward to. So all in all, a lot to be pleased with if you're a Liverpool fan.
Champions League group stage
A: Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Olympiakos, Malmo
B: Real Madrid, Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets
C: Benfica, Zenit, Leverkusen, Monaco
D: Arsenal, Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht
E: Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Man City, Roma
F: Barcelona, PSG, Ajax, APOEL
G: Chelsea, Schalke, Sporting, Maribor
H: Porto, Shakhtar, Athletic Bilbao, BATE
Real Madrid is a name that strikes fear into the hearts of most teams, but the Merseysiders have a fine record against the Spanish giants; winning all three meetings between the sides in Europe's top competition. One of those was the final in 1981 of course, when Alan Kennedy's goal at the Parc Des Princes was enough to clinch Liverpool's third of five European Cups. The other two meetings came in 2009 when Liverpool beat Real both home and away to progress to the quarterfinal stage.
Yossi Benayoun's late goal in the Bernabeu had shocked Madrid, but the Spanish press still expected Juande Ramos' side to progress by winning the second leg on Merseyside. "This is Anfield. So what?" screamed the headline on the front page of "Marca" on the morning of the game. They were no doubt regretting such bravado following a 4-0 drubbing in front of an electrified Kop.
Madrid may have amassed 10 European Cups, but they are yet to even the score against Liverpool, let alone taste victory. The current Liverpool side will certainly have their work cut out to maintain that impressive record against Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and company.
As for the other two teams in the group, I hadn't even heard of Ludogorets until they made the headlines this week with a dramatic victory over Steaua Bucharest on penalties. They went into that shootout without a recognised goalkeeper after Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off in the final minute of extra time. Centre back Cosmin Moti donned the gloves and saved two penalties to set up dates with Real Madrid and Liverpool, as well as providing an opportunity to exact some revenge on FC Basel, who knocked them out in the final qualifying round last year.
Since the draw, I've been doing some research on Ludogorets, and it turns out that I really should have heard of them, as they've been doing well these past couple of years. They made some waves in the Europa League last year by qualifying from the group stages without losing a game. They beat PSV Eindhoven and Dinamo Zagreb home and away and then overcame Lazio in the knockout stages before going out to Valencia. It shows just how little attention I pay to that competition that I'd never heard of them. I doubt I'm alone in that.
It isn't just Ludogorets that will be looking to settle an old score with Basel, however, as Liverpool have history with the Swiss side, too, having been held to two draws back in 2002. The 3-3 in Switzerland is a game Kopites remember for all the wrong reasons. The Reds needed to win in order to avoid elimination at the group stage but incredibly -- and embarrassingly -- found themselves 3-0 inside half an hour. Despite staging an impressive second half comeback to get back on level terms, Gerard Houllier's side couldn't find a winner and finished third in the group.
Basel were far from being a household name back then, but in fairness they are now Champions League regulars and a tough nut to crack. They beat Chelsea home and away last season, so although the draw could have been a lot tougher for Liverpool, they cannot afford to take anything for granted against Basel, who can be very dangerous opponents on their day.
Liverpool fans will know all about the danger posed by Basel's marauding right back Phillip Degen, who lit up the Premier League after signing for the Reds on a "Bosman transfer" in 2008. Ok, ok, some of that last sentence isn't exactly accurate. Degen did sign for Liverpool in 2008, but many supporters wouldn't be able to pick him out of a line-up, and those who could would probably sooner just completely forget about him. Degen's impact on Merseyside was that of a gnat's footprint in the desert. He spent much of his time at Anfield on the treatment table, and when he did play he looked completely out of his depth.
His signing was certainly one of the most curious ones of the Rafa Benitez era -- an era in which Liverpool were one of the most feared sides in Europe. Their Champions League record under Benitez was outstanding and Anfield became the venue no one wanted to visit. In the last decade the Reds have played in two finals (winning one, you may remember it) and were beaten by Chelsea in a quarterfinal and a semifinal. Not a bad record considering that four of the ten years they weren't even in the competition. Can Liverpool can get back to those dizzy heights of 2005-09?
That remains to be seen, but they may need to learn to walk again before they can run. That means concentrating on winning the four games against Basel and Ludogorets first and foremost; whatever they get against Madrid should be seen as a bonus and invaluable experience for the future. There's a huge element of the unknown with this Liverpool side as they have been out of the competition for so long, Rodgers has never managed at this level and several players have no experience of the competition either.
Will their free-flowing, attack-minded approach translate from the Premier League to Europe? Will inexperience prove to be their downfall, or will the exuberance of youth see them take the competition by storm?