Don’t mention the Champions League…
…except perhaps when giving a timely reminder that this season will be the first in which the winners of the Europa League gain automatic qualification for Europe’s premier competition the following season.
Would it be better for Liverpool to concentrate their efforts solely on the league and attempt to qualify via finishing in the top four? Or should they take their chances in this second rate European cup competition? It’s a situation where Liverpool appear to have more baskets than they have eggs (no it doesn’t make sense), and they could well end up breaking them all, but add the FA Cup into the mix and it might not be as simple as going all-out in one competition.
Past form shows Liverpool are poor in European competition under Brendan Rodgers, and fairly poor in the league whilst playing in Europe. Liverpool’s abject, submissive, toothless performance in this season’s Champions League, was only matched for incompetence by some of their parallel showings in the league.
This week’s opponents Beşiktaş top their domestic league back home in Turkey, and have only failed to win once in their last twelve league games; a 1-0 defeat against Galatasaray being their only slip-up in recent months.
They were unbeaten in their Europa League group, finishing top of the pile after games against Tottenham Hotspur, Partizan Belgrade, and plucky underdogs Asteras Tripolis.
Their last encounter with Liverpool was back in the 2007/08 Champions League season, when they defeated The Redman 2-1 at their Inönü Stadium, but Liverpool then triumphed in a record breaking 8-0 win against the Turks at Anfield.
The club are managed by former West Ham and Everton defender Slaven Bilic, with other links back to the English league including former Chelsea and Arsenal youths, Gökhan Töre and Oğuzhan Özyakup. And Demba Ba…
Their former home – the Inönü Stadium – has been demolished and a new ground is being built on the same site, which is due for completion in April this year. It’s for this reason that the return leg in Istanbul will be played at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium – a sporting arena well known to Liverpool fans.
The graphic below shows how Beşiktaş set up in this weekend’s dramatic 3-2 win against Bursaspor, when an injury time penalty from Demba Ba gave them all three points. Goalkeeper Tolga Zengin was taken off injured early in the game and replaced with Cenk Gönen, whilst centre back Ersan Gülüm was suspended, and should replace Atınç Nukan alongside Pedro Franco on Thursday.
Jose Sosa will plot attacks from the space between the opposition midfield and defence, occasionally making forward runs of his own, whilst former Chelsea youth star Gökhan Töre will drift from his position on the right wing, often becoming a second striker.
Here’s Töre’s goal from the weekend. The attacker found himself on the left hand side, cutting inside into the space created by Ba’s movement, before firing home with his weaker right foot.
Similarly, the German born Turkish international Olcay Şahan will start from a station wide on the left, but look cut inside onto his stronger right foot.
All of this results in a very narrow attack once in the 18-yard-box, but causes problems for wider defenders as to whether to follow their man inside or pass him off onto a more central team-mate. Liverpool’s lack of a defensive midfielder could also be a problem when it comes to marking Sosa, and communication will be key if Liverpool are to keep out the arrowhead-like Beşiktaş attack.
Any width going forward will be provided by the full backs, with Brazilian full back (say no more) Ramon operating on the left, and either Serdar Kutulus or Daniel Opare marauding down the right. If either full back gets forward to join the attack, then Liverpool could exploit the space left behind them after winning back possession.
The Turkish side’s 4-2-3-1 can easily morph into a 4-1-4-1, with one of the two holding midfielders assuming a more box-to-box role supporting both Sosa in attack, and the other deeper midfielder in defence. Slaven Bilic has his men well organised, as you’d expect from a table topping team, and they’ve fared well against Premier League opposition already this season.
They defeated Tottenham by a goal to nil in Istanbul, holding them to a 0-0 stalemate in the game at White Hart Lane. At the start of the season they were unlucky to go out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage, with an Alexis Sanchez strike at the Emirates the only difference between themselves and Arsenal over two legs.
Whilst bigger tests may lie ahead if Liverpool progress to the latter stages of this competition, Besiktas have proved they’re no pushovers. With a functioning formation and a whole host of players hitting form at the right time, Liverpool need to prove that they belong in Europe again, and even more importantly, prove they can maintain a challenge on miltiple fronts.