By Heath Harshman
It was a long-ish road, but we’re back. European football, Champions League football, is back at Anfield. Liverpool belongs in Europe’s premier footballing competition, and we can’t wait for the fun we’re going to have at home, and abroad, with Klopp and Co. this season.
But, we have to earn our keep. Not just anyone is allowed in the Champions League, a fact we’re well aware of by now. Balancing the responsibilities of the European football and domestic competition is one of the biggest challenges in major club football today. Teams unable to find a way to successfully manage their squad amongst a flurry of fixtures will quickly find themselves either in the Europa League, mid-table in their domestic league, or *gulp* both.
After successfully, and finally, qualifying for the Champions League last week, Liverpool know the path it’ll take to continue their campaign into 2018. The draw was as friendly as the club could hope for, facing a bevy of potentially tough matchups coming out of ‘pot three’. When it came time for Liverpool’s name to be called, the available options were Group E and Group H. Avoiding the likes of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund (for now), the Reds will instead face Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, and Maribor home and away throughout the final months of the year.
We now know the dates of these important matches, and decided to breakdown the impact the domestic responsibilities of the club will have on their qualification for the Champions League knockout stages. From interesting matchups and lengthy travel, to our expectations and hopes for the stage, here’s how Liverpool’s Champions League group stage schedule shakes out on their European journey.
Match #1 - Sevilla (H) - Wednesday, September 13th
Playing at Anfield is the perfect way for Liverpool to kick-off the group stages. They’ll be coming off of a road match against Manchester City, but as the second match after the international break, the squad should be relatively rested. Liverpool welcome Burnley to Anfield at the weekend following their Champions League debut.
Sevilla finished fourth in La Liga last season, qualifying for the Champions League in a somewhat new way. They qualified by winning the Europa League three consecutive times from 2013-14 to 2015-16, while finishing outside of domestic league qualification.
A good start in the group stages is what every team will hope for, and playing at Anfield in the club’s return to Champions League football should sway things in the Reds’ favor. What options are available for Klopp following the end of the transfer window will certainly play a role *cough* Coutinho/van Dijk/anyone at all *cough*, but the team should expect to start well in the campaign if they intend on sticking around. Three points at home should be expected, and dropping anything else to a team like Sevilla is asking for trouble down the road.
Match #2 - Spartak Moscow (A) - Tuesday, September 26th
This one is going to be tough. Maybe the toughest of the entire group stage for Liverpool. The trip to Moscow to face the defending Russian Premier League champions comes sandwiched between away matches against Leicester City and Newcastle as we go from September to October. It will end a stretch of six games in 19 days for the Reds’, likely testing the club’s depth, as competing in two top-tier competitions for several months will do. A point away, depending on how things domestically are going, wouldn’t be the worst prize to come back from Moscow with. Considering their stadium holds more than 45,000, the atmosphere should be electric. Four points from the first two matches, with a couple of favorable matchups ahead, would be welcomed with open arms.
Match #3 - Maribor (A) - Tuesday, October 17th
Traveling to Slovenia between Premier League clashes with Manchester United (home) and Tottenham (away), isn’t ideal. But where the match comes in relation to the group stages couldn’t be more perfect for the Reds.
It is the third time Maribor has qualified for the Champions League group stages, and the first since 2014. Every away game in European competition is tough, especially with important domestic matches taking precedent at home. Regardless of those responsibilities, taking three points from the Reds’ match with Maribor is a must. When looking at qualification for the knockout stages, these are matches Liverpool should win, and should expect to win.
Match #4 - Maribor (H) - Wednesday, November 1st
The return match with Maribor comes at a much friendlier time, and location, than the first. Getting the Slovenian champions back-to-back should help Liverpool’s position in the standings, should the first two matches go awry.
In the league, the Reds will have a home match with Huddersfield Town the weekend before the match with Maribor, and will travel to London to face West Ham the weekend after. A friendly domestic slate, along with a European Anfield night should mean another three points, and a path toward knockout stage qualification.
Match #5 - Sevilla (A) - Tuesday, November 21st
By now, the Reds should be in a quality position in the group stages, regardless of other results. Even with some points dropped in Moscow, or at home to Sevilla, Liverpool should be traveling to Spain with qualification in their sights. Luckily, the trip is between a couple of home matches. They’re against Southampton and Chelsea respectively, but we’ll always like our chances at home, even with a tough midweek road match. Giving the club a nice week at home to prepare for what is likely the most difficult matchup, talent-wise, of the group stages is a bonus.
Sevilla will likewise be hoping to capitalize on their Champions League schedule, with a trip to Slovenia to face Maribor rounding-out their group stage commitments. Should Liverpool drop points in this match and the first one at Anfield, things might get nervy. But even a draw in Spain at this stage should, at the very least, keep the Reds in good shape heading into the final game of the group.
Match #6 - Spartak Moscow (H) - Wednesday, December 6th
Having the final match of the group stages at home is comforting. Hopefully things will be wrapped up and we can be looking forward to the knockout stages by December. Unfortunately, the football gods are more cruel than that, and often like to drag things out. Getting the team from ‘pot one’ of the Champions League draw isn’t optimal, but as mentioned several times in this piece, we like our chances at Anfield.
The match with Spartak Moscow follows the Reds’ away trip to Brighton and Hove Albion, giving Klopp some flexibility going into the midweek game. They’ll be welcoming Everton to Anfield the following weekend. Being able to have things settled and already qualified for the knockout stages would add even more flexibility for the Gaffer, given the importance of both qualifying, and trouncing those blues in front of The Kop.
All in all, it looks like a doable job. The draw was friendly, and while some of the matches come at tough times domestically, that’s what the competition is really all about. The team will be tested, and while we can hope for more reinforcements, the matches will come regardless. So, we should be prepared for what’s ahead with the squad we currently have. If that ends up being the case after transfer deadline day, the team is still equipped to traverse the difficult landscape Group E of the 2017-18 Champions League group stages provides.