Liverpool may have crashed out of the Champions League, failing to advance from a group most considered them second favourites in in one of the more disappointing moments of a massively disappointing first half of the season, but two months on that all seems almost ancient history. Much of that is down to Liverpool having rather become a completely different side in the months since.
Different tactics and team selections have led to improved performances and a side averaging better than two points per game in the league since December started, and that makes for a side that begins its Europa League campaign in a far different place than when they left the Champions League. And they now have eight matches over four rounds standing between them and a piece of European silverware, kicking off tomorrow when they host Turksih side Besiktas.
It may not be the competition fans would have hoped they’d be in with a chance to win when the season started, but now that they are, winning doesn’t seem a completely far fetched idea. Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva remain unavailable in midfield, as does Jon Flanagan in defence. Raheem Sterling, on the other hand, is likely to be a late decision, though even if he can’t play Liverpool’s options in the final third have improved greatly with Daniel Sturridge’s return.
Lazar Markovic’s surprising four match ban will mean a new player comes in at right wingback, but with Jordon Ibe available for selection the switch there seems easy. Meanwhile, after tweaking the midfield in the second half against Crystal Palace, the main question may be whether Brendan Rodgers starts at home with a box four in the middle of the part or rewards Mario Balotelli for his recent strong play by going with two up top and three in the middle.
Across the pitch from them, Liverpool will be facing a Besiktas side that advanced from the group stages of the Europa League after they beat Tottenham to the top of Group C with 12 points. The Turkish side managed three wins and three draws in their six group stage matches, including a 1-0 victory at home over Tottenham in the final match to ensure they would finish in first. They also topped a low scoring group in goals scored with 11 in their six matches while conceding only five times.
Unsurprisingly, Demba Ba was their leading scorer and remains Besiktas’ top threat, the man who leads the line in Slaven Bilic’s 4-2-3-1. Ba had five goals despite only playing four group stage matches, and he has 13 in 17 in league play—nearly half of Besiktas’ 34 scored this season—for the Turkish leaders, who currently sit a point ahead of Fenerbahce and two up on Galatasaray in a three club dogfight for first. Ba is the focal point in Besiktas’ system, and as he goes so do they.
He’s not the only danger man, though. Liverpool will have to pay special attention to Gokhan Tore, the 23-year-old Turkish rising star who most often sets him up. Tore had three goals and four assists in the group stages to go along with the four goals and six assists he's tallied in domestic competition so far this season. The young attacking midfielder shows signs of becoming a real star of European football, and the hard working creative player has recently been linked with moves to Manchester United and Atletico Madrid.
He also has something of a spotty disciplinary recored and gained a bad-boy reputation following an incident where he allegedly pulled a gun on a Turkish national team teammate during a dispute, though the player has denied having done so. Elsewhere, Turkish international Olcay Sahan will also be a threat from an advanced midfield role. Sahan struggled in the group stages, registering just two assists in six appearances, but in league play he has six goals and three assists this season.
Kickoff is set for 8:05PM GMT/3:05PM EST on Thursday, with ITV providing coverage in the UK and Fox Sports 2 airing the match in the US. Our coverage will continue with any breaking team news, team sheets when they’re released, and live coverage tomorrow including full viewing options and post-match reactions. If you haven’t already, sign up for an SB Nation account and join us for it.