Five-time European Cup/Champions League winners Liverpool are back amongst the big boys after their tremendous season in the Premier League, finishing second behind Manchester City. Of course one of the key men who got them there is no longer at the club, Luis Suarez will instead be hoping to propel Barcelona to the trophy.
Liverpool don’t seem to have missed the Uruguayan too much so far, with two wins from three in the English top division, scoring three at Tottenham without reply is the clearest indication yet that they can get remain in the top four and maintain Champions League football next season.
So how will they do on their return? They are in Group B with Real Madrid, Swiss Champions and current league leaders Basel and Bulgarian APFG title winners Ludogorets. Ironically it’s Madrid and the Merseysiders who aren’t the champions.
Liverpool begins with a home game against the Bulgarians and couldn’t have wished for a better start. Georgi Dermendzhiev’s side only won two games in qualifying and they had a stoppage time aggregate equaliser to thank for seeing them into extra time and then a penalty win against Steau Bucharest in the final qualifier. They won the penalty shoot-out in startling fashion. Goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off in extra time, so defender Cosmi Moti took the gloves and saved two penalties, as well as scoring his own, to book his team’s place in the group stages for the first time in their history.
I expect Liverpool to beat Ludogorets comfortably at Anfield with a pulsating atmosphere overwhelming the group outsiders. I’d look at over 3.5 match goals in that opener at Anfield.
Basel are a familiar team in European competition and have become synonymous with high-scoring matches. Their six domestic games have already featured 25 goals, I see this continuing in Group B. Liverpool could score five across the two games with the Swiss side, they love taking on an open team.
The games against Real Madrid will be special occasions as two European power-houses line up against each other. Liverpool aren’t a team to sit back and defend, so again I expect goals, with the Champions League holders, packed full of attacking talent. If a special market appears anywhere for the Group with most goals, B would be my pick.
Scoring goals won’t be an issue for Brendan Rodgers’ men; it’s the other end where they will struggle in my opinion. Last season their defence was the reason they didn’t win the Premier League title and it will be the reason they don’t get past the Round of 16 stage, unless they get a favourable draw. The first time they come up against a big European team in the knockout phase will be the end of their run. A strong defence is everything, unless you can consistently out-score the opposition. With Suarez they may have been capable of that, but I don’t see the same firepower with Daniel Sturridge and Mario Balotelli. Already in the Premier League, Southampton had 10 shots on goal, with six on target and four of those inside the penalty area. Tottenham had three shots from inside the penalty, as did Manchester City. The difference being the finishing of course. This is the worry for the Reds at this level the finishing is more likely to be City-esque than Spurs-like.
I think we’ll see some great games involving Liverpool though – a little like City’s first foray into the competition three years ago. If there are going to be plenty of goals, the Liverpool top scorer soccer odds are worth a look. Sturridge is 4/6, with Balotelli 4/1. I don’t think there will be many goals between them, because Balotelli is more experienced against top class defenders and Sturridge’s injury record means you’re never sure he will play every game. Rodgers even cited that as a reason for buying Balotelli. Liverpool’s first choice striker missed 18 games last season and 14 the season before.
My main soccer picks for Liverpool in the Champions League would be a straight forecast of Real Madrid and Liverpool in the group at 8/13, Liverpool to go out at the Round of 16 stage at 6/4 and Mario Balotelli to be the club’s top scorer in the competition at 4/1.