Liverpool's first successful European group stage in three years will hardly be a memorable one. Four draws and two narrow wins were just enough to top the group, and the competition will surely be much more difficult in the next round. However, winning the group was not a meaningless gesture, as Liverpool are now placed in the seeded teams pot, and will have the benefit of playing the crucial second-leg tie at Anfield.
Although we cannot predict the outcome of the draw, we do know of some limitations. For one, teams from the same association cannot play each other. This rule doesn't apply to Liverpool, as the two other British teams, Manchester United and Tottenham, are both seeded. Also, for reasons, teams from the Ukraine and Russia cannot be drawn against each other. Finally, teams cannot be drawn against another team from their group, so that rules out FC Sion and their half-frozen pitch for Liverpool.
One last quirk: Should Liverpool draw Fenerbahce, the first leg will take place on Tuesday, February 16th, as opposed to Thursday, February 18th.
Anyway, let's take a not-so-quick look at ten of the possible opponents Liverpool could face, based solely on their UEFA coefficient because comparing teams between leagues is damned near impossible :
No offense intended to the following teams. All of these teams did what they needed to do to get here, and all are capable of an upset on a given day. Case in point:
- FC Midtjylland (#136): No surprise they're first, right? Personal feelings aside, this is a team that has played English sides in Europa qualification twice. The first time they took Manchester City to penalties, and the second was this summer when they eliminated Southampton. They're currently 3 points back from 2nd place in the Danish Superliga, with a game in hand.
- Augsburg (#94): Augsburg might actually deserve the first mention. They're currently 16th (out of 18) in the Bundesliga, and fighting for their top-flight survival. I imagine dreams of European glory will not outweigh the practical realities of needing to secure a place among the German elites.
- St-Etienne (#87): Currently sixth in Ligue 1, St-Etienne advances to the knockout round on the strength of two wins, three draws, and a solitary 3-2 defeat away to Lazio. The Greens are not known for their European success, but have finished runners up in the European Cup in 1975-76.
- Sparta Praha (#63): Liverpool should draw Prague, if only for an excuse to visit this delightful city and enjoy a few rounds of its delicious, cheap beer. As for the football team? Well, they're second in the Czech 1st. Division, three points back of leaders Viktoria Plzen. Prague once reached the European Cup semi-finals, back in 1992.
- Fenerbahce (#60): Oh, hello Lazar Markovic. Perhaps it's best not to draw this side after all, and give young-laserbeams a chance to show us all what we're missing? The Turkish side is currently second in the Super Lig, one point back of Besiktas, another team we'll be happy not to face again any time soon.
- Galatasaray (#31): Galatasaray have had a disappointing season so far. They're tied for fourth with two other teams (though ahead on goal differential) in the Super Lig, and only managed one win in Champions League play, beating Benfica 2-1 at home. Gala are former Europa League winners, winning the competition in 1999-2000, a year before Liverpool last lifted the trophy.
- Shakhtar Donetsk (#23): The Miners currently sit atop the Ukrainian Premier League on goal differential. Although they could be excused for finishing third in a group with Real Madrid and Paris St. Germain, they did lose an away match to the otherwise dreadful Malmo, handing the Swedes their only win and only goal in the competition.
- Sevilla (#19): Winners of the last two renditions of the Europa League, this is definitely a team who should be feared. However, this season hasn't been so easy for the holders, currently sitting 10th in La Liga with precisely 19 goals for, 19 goals against, and 19 points. Sevilla needed to beat Juventus on the last day of Champions League group action in order to secure their place in the Europa League, and they did just that.
- Valencia (#15): Valencia's season doesn't appear to be going much better than Sevilla's, as they sit two places higher domestically, albeit with a +7 goal differential. Valencia's elimination from Champions League is a bit of a shock, as they finished behind Zenit St. Petersburg and Gent. It would also be nice to welcome Gary Neville to the Europa League with an equally quick exit. Valencia finished runner-up in the Champions League on two consecutive season from 1999-2001, and won the Europa League in 2003-04.
- Borussia Dortmund (#10): So let's be honest, this is the team we're absolutely going to draw, right? The narrative writes itself, and everyone can proudly put on their tinfoil hats and spin conspiracy theories about heated ping-pong balls. Jürgen Klopp's former team have reestablished themselves as the second-best in Germany, currently sitting 5 points back of Bayern, and 9 points clear of Borussia Mönchengladbach in third. That they finished second in their Europa League group is a bit of a shock, but that only shows how difficult this competition really is. Either that or they really wanted a crack at Liverpool.
Long story short, there's a lot of talent in this competition, and we haven't even touched on the seeded teams yet. Thankfully, Liverpool only has to play each team one at a time. If Liverpool manage a deep run in this competition, it won't be out of luck, as any one of these teams can cause fits on their day.