After what has felt like an eternity, Liverpool are finally back where they belong. On Wednesday night, the Reds will make a long-awaited return to Champions League action as they welcome Sevilla to Anfield.
Regardless of their domestic fortunes, there will always be something missing if Liverpool are absent from the continental stage, for this is a club defined by its European exploits. Indeed, at virtually every Premier League game, you’ll hear fans singing of that night “back in Rome in ‘77”.
Nonetheless, Liverpool have struggled to make their mark in Europe’s premier club competition since Istanbul mastermind Rafael Benitez left Anfield, and will this year be looking to dispel memories of their 2014/15 nightmare.
In truth, the Reds embarrassed themselves on their last Champions League outing. After scraping Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets on Match Day One, their campaign unraveled; they were dealt a humbling blow away at Basel and twice swept aside by Real Madrid.
Still, Brendan Rodgers’ side needed only to beat the Swiss outfit at home to ensure progression, but a 1-1 draw saw them exit with a whimper. Liverpool had fallen dramatically short of their fans’ lofty expectations.
Yet this time, there is cause for excitement rather than trepidation, particularly after the Reds cruised through the all-important qualifier in highly-promising fashion.
A thoroughly-professional job on Hoffenheim’s home turf, exactly the kind of performance required to excel in Europe, was followed by an enthralling rout at Anfield.
Crucially, their opponents were far from nobodies. It was a representative test against the side who finished fourth in the Bundesliga and, perhaps, a tantalising sign of what’s to come.
After being handed a humdinger of a draw in the playoffs, the Reds have drawn a favourable lot for the group stages, pitted against Sevilla, Spartak Moscow and Maribor when they could so easily have faced Real, Bayern or their equivalents.
Sevilla will, of course, pose a stern test, but Jurgen Klopp’s men really ought to be breezing past Spartak and Maribor if they have serious aspirations in this year’s competition. Clearly, the two games against the Spanish high-flyers on September 13thand November 21st will be the best indicator of Liverpool’s potential.
If Liverpool were to inexplicably stumble at the first hurdle, there would be nowhere to hide for the manager or his players. Yet if, as most expect, they reach the knockout stages, they become a genuine dark horse for three main reasons.
Firstly, we know this side turns up in the big games. Putting aside the drubbing at the Etihad, which exposed a tactical inflexibility with ten men rather than a new-found weakness, it is clear that Liverpool are at their best in the blockbuster clashes.
One loss, however emphatic, does not change the fact that the side who thumped Arsenal last month will reach another level when they take on the European heavyweights.
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Secondly, this free-scoring team will be a real danger away from home. Away goals are so often the deciding factor in the knockout rounds, and Liverpool’s attacking might means their opponents will struggle to shut them out.
Indeed, their potency on the counter-attack will be key, given that the onus is always on the home side to take the game to their opponents.
Finally, they can utilise the power of Anfield. Perhaps the stadium is not the fortress it used to be, but one would be foolish to underestimate the impact of playing before 50,000 roaring fans at a venue steeped in European history. It is an atmosphere which will daunt the best.
We saw its importance in the Europa League campaign of 2015/16 as the Reds overwhelmed United, rallied to snatch that win against Dortmund and launched a stunning turnaround against Villarreal.
READ: Liverpool vs Sevilla
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So then, what would constitute success for Liverpool in this year’s Champions League? Of course, there should be no specific target, for the club should be aiming to go as far as possible, but it’s important to remain realistic.
The Reds may be a very dangerous team who nobody will want to come up against, but at this point they simply cannot compete with the very best. On their day, Real, Barcelona and Bayern could cut through our fragile defence like a knife through butter – the hard truth.
Liverpool find themselves in an effective third tier, behind the almighty triumvirate listed above as well as the likes of Atletico Madrid, PSG and Juventus.
For now, most fans would acknowledge that they are still a number of defensive reinforcements and a few superstars away from competing for European glory. Never say never, but in this case, say ‘probably not’.
A run to the quarter finals would probably be enough to satisfy the Anfield faithful but it all hinges, to state the obvious, on the draw. If Lady Luck is on Liverpool’s side, she could steer them to the business end, but a nightmare tie in the last-16 is far from out of the question, as Arsenal fans would point out.
The focus, then, should be on making a statement and warning the big guns that the resurgent Reds are very much on the comeback trail as a developing squad racks up invaluable Champions League experience.
Perhaps, though, we can allow ourselves to dream of another classic, akin to the thrilling 4-2 triumph over Arsenal in 2008 or the demolition of Real a year later.
Liverpool fans, whether the realists or the dreamers, can agree that a successful European campaign this year would represent a significant step in the club’s Renaissance.