The Champions League groups have been drawn, the fixtures have been scheduled, and Liverpool are officially in full preparation mode for their first sojourn in Europe's top club competition since 2009. The draw was certainly much easier than it could have been (have fun, Manchester City!), but Liverpool will still have to be focused and on top of their game to advance to the knockout rounds.
Real Madrid are a side that everyone who follows football knows, but what about Basel? What about Ludogoretz? Who are these teams that Liverpool have been drawn against? Let's find out.
Real Madrid are, obviously, a tremendously talented team. This is the side that won the Champions League and came agonizingly close to winning La Liga with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, and Sergio Ramos, and just because they could they added James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos to the mix. As if they weren't good enough.
It's just not fair.
Even the most optimistic Liverpool fans have to admit that Madrid are the powers of Group B, though the Reds have gotten the better of the Spanish side the last few times that the two have faced off in European competition. Last time Real were at Anfield, in fact, Liverpool won 4-0.
Still, these two sides are very different than they were back in 2009. Liverpool have gone through a downswing that they've only just recovered from, and Real have done nothing but get better since then. Speaking honestly, if Liverpool can get even two or three points against a side with such ridiculous quality and depth, they'll be doing quite well.
2014 Season: 1st in Swiss Super League, 19 W, 15 D, 2 L
70 goals scored, 34 goals allowed
@ FC Basel Oct 1
@ Liverpool Dec. 9
Basel have been the main power in Switzerland for a good long spell now, and they've built a decent record of European success along with it. While they haven't gotten out of the group stage of the Champions League since the 2011/12 season, they've built a reputation of being a tough team to beat and one that causes upsets on the regular.
They have a new manager this season in Paulo Sousa, a 43 year old Portuguese manager with a reputation for punching above his weight with his teams. He's quickly taken Basel to the front of the pack in the Swiss Super League, with five wins in their first six matches, as well as a win in their first Swiss Cup match. If he can carry this success in to the Champions League (and potentially the Europa League as well), he could become a cult hero in Basel.
Basel have an interesting team, with a number of players who may not be flashy, but are tactically sound. They made one heck of a fascinating signing this summer, though, bringing in Yoichiro Kakitani from Cerezo Osaka, one of the Japanese league's brightest stars of the last few years. Kaikitani is a versatile attacker who can play as a center forward, wide forward, or a central supporting role, and a skill set that includes good finishing, a good passing eye, and the ability to press like a demon will play well in Basel's setup.
Oh, and get ready to say hi to our old friend Philipp Degen. Yeah, he's still kicking around and is a regular in the lineup for the team that he played for as a youth. Should be interesting to see him at Anfield again.
2014 Season: 1st in A Grupa, 25 W, 9 D, 4 L
74 goals scored, 20 goals allowed
@ Liverpool Sept. 16
@ Ludogoretz Nov. 26
Ludogoretz hit the Champions League group stage for the first time ever in dramatic fashion, taking down Steaua Bucharest on penalties in the Champions League Playoff round. That wasn't all, though; Ludogoretz won in penalties despite their goalkeeper getting sent off in extra time and having to put center back Cosmin Moti in goal for the shoot-out. Moti saved a pair of penalties in fine fashion, and scored one of his own as Ludogoretz won the shootout 6-5.
The Bulgarian side is hardly new to European competition, however. Ludogoretz has become something of a power in their league, winning the title in three straight seasons from the 2011/12 season to this past season, effectively ending a spell of dominance by CSKA Sofia. They've beaten a number of sides that have understimated them Europa League play, including a run that saw them get to the round of 16 last year before falling to Valencia.
They've used a big cash infusion from a new owner (mega-millionaire Kiril Domuschiev bought the team in 2010) and smart scouting to put together a quality side of under-appreciated talent, and while Liverpool should be able to beat them twice without too much strain, they'll still need to be taken very seriously lest they cause a massive upset. In fact, don't be shocked if they finish third in the group over Basel. They're a much tougher team than they're getting credit for.