Look at Group B of the 2014/15 Champions League and two names stand out – Liverpool and Real Madrid, two powerhouses of the game with 15 European Cup triumps between them. The Reds theoretically could not have drawn a more difficult top seed than the reigning champions, who are not resting on their laurels judging by their summer transfer activity.
Liverpool’s other two group opponents are not as well known, but will both provide their share of challenges. FC Basel dumped the Reds out of the Champions League group stage 12 years ago and have also ended the European dreams of Manchester United and Tottenham in more recent times. Very little is known of Ludogorets Razgrad, the Bulgarian champions making their first ever appearance at this stage of the competition, so Brendan Rodgers and co cannot treat them lightly.
No introduction needed here – the very name of Real Madrid screams class and glory, particularly in 2014 after securing that much-coveted 10th European Cup in Lisbon last May. Their stellar line-up of ‘galacticos’ was further enhanced by the summer arrivals of Colombian World Cup star James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, a winner of that tournament with Germany. Carlo Ancelotti could even afford to dispense with the services of two quality midfielders, Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso, such is the strength in depth at the Bernabeu.
Madrid’s biggest obstacle this year may well be the same problem that has afflicted every defending European champion since 1990 – finding the wherewithal to successfully retain their title, with the rest of the continent’s elite out to overthrow their reigning kings. Los Blancos know all about the position of their competitors, having emphatically killed Bayern Munich’s hopes of a second successive title last season. Since the birth of the Champions League in its current name, Real Madrid have never failed at the group stage and it would represent a huge surprise if they were to finish anywhere else but first in Group B.
Danger man: Cristiano Ronaldo
The reigning Ballon D’Or holder might not have had the best of World Cups, but in the white of Real Madrid he is almost untouchable. Even in the Super Cup against Sevilla, he straddled the battlefield like a man on a mission and put the finishing touch to two superb goals. While his egocentric demeanour is certainly not to everyone’s liking, it is impossible to claim that Ronaldo is anything but a top class player, and one who has developed into an inspirational leader at the Bernabeu. The thought of Glen Johnson possibly lining up against him is sobering.
One to watch: Dani Carvajal
With the eyes of the public primarily directed elsewhere on the Real Madrid team that conquered Europe last season, the 22-year-old right-back was allowed to quietly blossom into a player of real substance, to the extent that he was on the brink of being included in Spain’s World Cup squad. His eventual omission would have been a huge blow at the time, but hindsight has taught us that it has probably been a blessing for him after the 2010 winners’ horrendous summer in Brazil. Expect this young talent to hone his game even further over the coming months.
If there’s one team that can repeatedly upset the English apple cart on the continent, it is Basel. The Swiss club came to prominence in 2002/03 when, in their debut Champions League campaign, they edged out Liverpool for a place in the last 16. Nine years later, they famously beat Man United to send the Old Trafford club packing before the knockout rounds and in 2012/13 they eliminated Tottenham from the Europa League. Last season they did the double over Chelsea in the group stage, so Liverpool are most certainly forewarned as they prepare to do battle with the club from St Jakob Park.
Basel’s success has come at a price, though. Over the summer they lost key players in Yann Sommer and Valentin Stocker, both of whom impressed for Switzerland at the World Cup, although highly-rated defender Fabian Schar remains for now and, considering that they have sold off previous crown jewels in Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri while remaining competitive, they will still pose plenty of danger to Liverpool. There is an interesting new name in the manager’s dugout at Basel, ex-QPR and Leicester boss Paulo Sousa, who has made bold proclamations about the club’s potential in his first few weeks in the job.
Danger man: Marco Streller
A rare breed of Swiss player that has earned a long-term living within his home country, Streller brings plenty of experience up front, as well as an eye for goal. He developed under the tutelage of former strike partner Alexander Frei and he now leads the line with composure for Basel. Also, he is a man to be monitored very closely on set pieces.
One to watch: Fabian Schar
As mentioned above, the 22-year-old has remained loyal to the red and blue of Basel despite intense summer speculation over a move abroad. He was one of several Swiss players to catch the eye at the World Cup in Brazil and he is a surprisingly adept goalscorer, with a ratio of nearly one every other game for his country.
What a story this has been. Founded as recently as 2001, Ludogorets only made their debut appearance in the Bulgarian top flight three years ago, but have been champions in every season since then. They served notice of their potential to perform on the continent when reaching the last 16 of the 2013/14 Europa League, knocking out Lazio along the way, and battled through three qualifying rounds to take their place in the Champions League group stage for the first time.
Their play-off success over Steaua Bucharest was a fairytale in itself. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg and scoreless going into stoppage time, Ludogorets struck to force extra time, towards the end of which goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov was sent off, forcing defender Cosmin Moti to take the gloves. In the subsequent penalty shoot-out, he scored a spot kick as well as saving two of Steaua’s to send Ludogorets into the promised land. They have landed the group of their dreams, with two of the biggest names in world football among their opponents, and they are now gearing up for a truly special chapter in their short yet incredible history.
Danger man: Cosmin Moti
The Romanian defender became an overnight hero in Bulgaria for his aforementioned display in the dramatic play-off win over Steaua, having been a prolonged servant with the club’s city rivals Dinamo Bucharest prior to joining Ludogorets in 2012. Moti quickly established himself as a fans’ favourite for his wholehearted performances and, if he was to never kick a ball for the Bulgarian champions again, he is already assured a special place in the history of Razgrad.
One to watch: Roman Bezjak
The Slovenian striker signed for Ludogorets two years ago and, after a nondescript first season with the club, he was considerably more prolific last term, finding the net several times in their surprisingly lengthy Europa League campaign. Liverpool will be well advised to keep close tabs on him when the Bulgarians visit Anfield in mid-September.
With Real Madrid almost certain to top the group, Liverpool will have their sights set on qualifying for the last 16, something they failed to manage in their last Champions League campaign five years ago. It will be a first venture into this competition for the majority of the Reds’ squad, but considering the way they fearlessly went about challenging for the Premier League title last season, they won’t be fazed by the famous pre-game music. If anything, the raucous Anfield atmosphere for European nights will galvanise a team that is not lacking in confidence, although that confidence needs to be kept in check.
It could be a race for second between Liverpool and Basel, with the Swiss side now well versed in the rigours of this competition, something that may give them an edge over Brendan Rodgers’ men. It is vital that Liverpool get the better of it in their duels with Basel and the Merseysiders will have the advantage of welcoming them to Anfield on the final group matchday.
The Reds must also be careful not to underestimate Ludogorets, either. In that ill-fated 2009/10 Champions League campaign, Liverpool also met a group stage first-timer from an unheralded league, but Debrecen ended up causing far more problems than they should have been allowed to. Six points over the Bulgarians is a must for Rodgers and his side; anything else could be fatal.
It is unlikely that Liverpool will go through the group without at least one defeat, but if they can register three wins and perhaps a couple of draws, that should be enough to see them into the knockout stages. I believe the Reds can see off the challenge of Basel for second spot behind Real Madrid.
1st: Real Madrid, 2nd: Liverpool, 3rd: Basel, 4th: Ludogorets