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Champions League

Reaction to Liverpool’s Champions League group: Qualification expected

The Boot Room

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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.

 

REAL MADRID

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.

 

FC BASEL

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.

 

LUDOGORETS RAZGRAD

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.

 

LIVERPOOL’S PROSPECTS

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

Champions League

Gareth Bale’s red-hot Real Madrid form should scare Liverpool

The Welshman has scored 11 goals in his last 15 appearances.

Max Cohen

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Gareth Bale
Photo: Getty Images

In Real Madrid’s final league match of this season on Saturday, Gareth Bale swept home a lovely right-footed finish to open the scoring against Villarreal.

That goal marked the Welshman’s 11th goal in his last 15 appearances for club and country; a remarkably prolific run of form that should scare Liverpool ahead of next weekend’s Champions League final.

Injury problems have marred much of Bale’s time at the Bernabeu, and he suffered a lengthy two-month absence from the first team this fall.

Yet, after returning from his injury lay-off, the former world-record signing has hit full form in the last two months.

In that time period, the winger has scored a hat-trick for Wales, braces against Las Palmas and Celta Vigo, and a crucial goal versus Barcelona.

This spring resurgence presents a worrying prospect for Liverpool’s defence, who already will have their hands full trying to keep Cristiano Ronaldo in check in Kiev.

(Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

Add in Gareth Bale hitting full form, and suddenly the task at hand for Jurgen Klopp’s men appears far more difficult.

The 28-year-old also has quite the decorated history for los Blancos in cup finals. In his debut season for Real, Bale scored sensational winning goals in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals.

The following season in the European Cup final, the Welshman assisted Real Madrid’s sole goal and scored his penalty in the ensuing shoot-out; his cup final record is simply superb.

Combined with Bale’s recent tremendous goalscoring form, the prospect of facing up against the powerful winger might strike fear in the Liverpool backline.

But the Reds have proven adept in stifling some of the best attacks in Europe this season.

Liverpool famously restricted high-scoring Manchester City to just one goal over 180 minutes in the quarterfinals and the Reds will have to conjure up that heroic rearguard performance in order to stop the on-form Gareth Bale next weekend.

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Champions League

Liverpool should pursue a swap deal with Emre Can for Sami Khedira

The Juventus midfielder could be tempted to the Premier League this summer.

Josh Kerr

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Khedira
Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool should make Sami Khedira their primary replacement for Emre Can, who is expected to join Juventus on a free transfer at the end of the season.

The German international is coming to the end of his third season with the Serie A outfit after joining from Real Madrid on a free transfer in 2015, with just a year left on his contract.

With the Serie A outfit’s midfield options already at full strength and the likely addition of Can, this summer could lead to a few clear-outs in the middle of the park for Juventus.

This should prompt Jurgen Klopp to pursue his fellow countryman Khedira, who is said to be interested in a move to the Premier League.

Reports from The Sun suggest Liverpool have been ‘alerted’ to Khedira’s availability this summer during negotiations with Juventus over Can.

The 24-year-old midfielder’s deal expires at the end of the season and Liverpool face the serious prospect of losing him on a free.

A move for Khedira would make perfect sense for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who are needing to strengthen a midfield that has endured so many injuries throughout the current campaign.

(Photo by Javier Soriano/Getty Images)

With the addition of Naby Keita, Khedira could prove to be the established central defensive midfielder who allows the Reds midfield three to tick, similar to the role Sergio Busquets plays at Barcelona.

The World Cup-winning midfielder spoke of his fondness for the Premier League in an interview with Bild, saying: “The Premier League has always fascinated me. Winning the title there would complete my collection.”

Liverpool have been breathtaking in Europe this season and Khedira’s experience of winning four-domestic titles in his career could be the addition the Reds need to compete with the dominance of Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.

The German international, who has nine goals and seven assists this season, has one year remaining on his Juventus contract and may be allowed to leave to join the Reds if he desires, with Can likely to join as his ready-made replacement.

Massimiliano Allegri has always possessed a knack for quickly replacing players who have decided they want to leave Juventus, with Fernando Llorente, Carlos Teves, and Paul Pogba all leaving the Italian side in recent years.

Therefore, the likely arrival of Can could be a link to Khedira’s desires to pursue new challenges elsewhere. If so, Liverpool would be the perfect destination for the Juventus midfielder.

The Reds’ high-pressing, all-out, attacking style of play could appeal to the former Real Madrid star, who would undoubtedly be excited by the prospect of joining up with compatriot, Jurgen Klopp, on Merseyside.

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Champions League

Ranking Liverpool’s possible Champions League semi-final opponents

The draw for the semi-final stage takes place on Friday 13th April.

Max Cohen

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Liverpool
Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool shocked the footballing world with a 5-1 aggregate dismantling of Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals, earning themselves their first semifinal appearance in a decade.

The draw to determine who they will play in the last four occurs on Friday, and here are Liverpool’s possible opponents ranked in terms of difficulty.

1. Roma

Fresh off a superb 3-0 second leg win over Barcelona, the Serie A side are certainly high on confidence and feel as if they can beat any team in the world.

Nonetheless, the Reds will be hoping they are rewarded with a matchup against the Italian side, as they are the most inexperienced team left in the competition.

The farthest Roma have ever made it in the UEFA Champions League were back-to-back quarterfinal appearances in 2006/07 and 2007/08; the semifinals mark uncharted territory for the Italians in the modern era.

Roma are also in poor league form, having recently lost to Fiorentina and drawing with Bologna, and currently sit 21 points off the pace in Serie A.

Liverpool would love to play the only remaining Italian side in the semifinals, as it would pit them against an inexperienced European club.

(Photo by Christof Stache/Getty Images)

2. Bayern Munich

One of the world’s best clubs and boasting a superstar collection of top players, the Bundesliga champions are a team to fear.

They have cantered to their sixth-straight league title this spring, winning the title in customary fashion with over a month still to play.

But although it has been all smooth sailing at home, they have shown signs of imperfection in the Champions League. They failed to muster a goal in their second-leg 0-0 draw with Sevilla, and were also thrashed 3-0 by Paris Saint Germain in the group stage.

Although the Bavarian giants are still a force to be reckoned with, they have shown signs of cracking this year; a fact that Liverpool can take heart from.

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

3. Real Madrid

The back-to-back defending European champions would be the last club Liverpool want to face for a spot in the final.

Real Madrid possess the most dangerous player in Champions League history in the form of Cristiano Ronaldo, gifting Los Blancos the ability to win a match out of nowhere.

Ronaldo’s uncanny scoring skills were on display in the quarterfinal battle against Juventus, where he scored three goals, including an outrageous overhead kick and a stoppage-time penalty to send Real through.

Madrid simply don’t get knocked out in Europe; the Reds should be praying they avoid the Spanish side in the semifinal draw.

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