By Andy Yates
Liverpool return to Champions League football tonight, with a trip to FC Basel in what promises to be Brendan Rodgers first real challenge at this elite European level.
Despite being taking all the way against the relative unknown minnows of Ludogrets, Basel will pose a sterner threat than the Bulgarians, having pulled off some shock results against the likes of Chelsea and Bayern Munich over the last few seasons.
Liverpool will be hoping to get back to winning ways after a faltering start in the Premier League. Victory and three points in the Merseyside Derby looked to be theirs up until Phil Jagielka scored a 30 yard half volley in the 92nd minute, but what is now vital is that Liverpool maintains a focus against a team who are arguably seen as their direct rivals to qualify from Group B.
They will most certainly need their stand out players from last season to make a case in Switzerland. With Daniel Sturrudge still out injured, Mamadou Sakho not travelling due to disciplinary action as well as Joe Allen, Jon Flanagan and Emre Can all out injured, the responsibility on the players who came so close to winning the Premier League last season is a heavy one.
Liverpool’s stuttering start has been well publicised of late, their run of form see’s them well off the pace of the front runners domestically. Much has been made of the new signings and their impact, whilst the older guard have also found themselves in the firing line, winning just 2 out of a possible 6 games scoring just 8 goals in the process.
Should Liverpool want all three points from their tricky tie in Switzerland, certain players will need a huge performance, and below are three key players who can bring victory for the Reds tonight.
The young Brazilian starlet had a fantastic pre-season and was one of the key players in the title run in back in April and May, scoring the winning goal against Manchester City at Anfield. His start to the new season has mirrored that of Liverpool in general, frustrating. He was simply scintillating during Liverpool’s 4-0 rout of Dortmund before the league opener to Southampton, and barring a few good moments in that game and during Tottenham away, he hasn’t quite found that exciting rhythm he has that mesmerises the opposition and the hoards watching him.
His substitute appearance against Everton gave fans some hope that his form and confidence is returning. The blues started the second half a little better than Liverpool, but on Coutinho’s arrival the balance swung once again, and all Liverpool’s play was going through young Philippe, his deft touch and cheeky through balls creating opening for Liverpool left and right.
There are no two ways about it, when Philippe Coutinho is on form, the rest of the teams dances to his beat. His passes change games and his calmness, which at times boarders on the ridiculous, has been a welcome asset in the chaos Liverpool have the ability to create.
Liverpool should expect no different than a hostile atmosphere on what should be a ‘proper European night’, and when they’re looking for options, whether that be from the bench or from the off, Coutinho may be that player who can take them a step further towards last 16 qualification and kick start what has been a frustrating domestic season so far.
For as long as I can remember, Liverpool’s defence has always been that of one solid unit, with strong and powerful players attacking from the back, their presence as frightening from the stands as it is when standing next to them.
During Rafa Benitez’s time at Liverpool, the defence were arguably the reason behind some of Liverpool’s most famous victories. If you cast your mind back to Juventus in 2005 during the quarter final, the away leg in particular was won by a defensive game plan so well thought out that it is often never given the credit it deserved.
The defensive foursome of Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Steve Finnan and John Arne Riise were immense during Liverpool’s run to European glory, and they faced off (and won) in battles against the very best. Despite Liverpool’s lack of attacking threat back then (Milan Baros and Djibril Cisse have Champions League medals remember), it was the defence that controlled and sustained during games were defences would otherwise be torn apart.
Dejan Lovren’s Liverpool hasn’t hit the ground running as many were expecting. As with Coutinho, he started off against Borussia Dortmund in pre-season with a goal and composed performance. Granted it was pre season and Dortmund didn’t have their strongest 11 out, but in the moments of quiet in the Anfield crowd, his voice was the sole voice, just as Carragher’s was for many years at the heart of the Liverpool defence.
His best game arguably came during the Merseyside derby, and despite conceding, Liverpool showed assurance on the ball and a defensive stability which is vital in such games. It bodes well going in to the Basel clash, but they will need to be on point for 90 minutes, the Swiss side currently sit top of their domestic league having scored 23 goals already this season.
Lovren most certainly has the abilities to be a stalwart at the heart of the Liverpool defence for years to come, yet it is obvious he is feeling the pressure which greeted him on day one. He may will find himself at the centre of it all tomorrow, so it is most definitely his biggest game yet in a red shirt with Champions League football being new to him. If Liverpool can get things right at the back, they may arrive back on Merseyside with a point or three, and the fans will have a new wave of confidence in their defence going forward for the rest of the season.
Run boy run. And my word does he… Henderson is the stand-out player for Liverpool this season, his tireless displays have brought him plaudits who once laughed at his £16 million price tag. It has also seen him promoted to Vice Captain at Liverpool, with the future looking set to see the Sunderland lad become one of Liverpool’s own when he takes the reins from Steven Gerrard.
Not only is his work rate admirable, other aspects of his game have significantly improved. His ball retention is second to none, his willingness to drive forward a vital component in a Liverpool team which expects to attack and score goals. His eye for a through ball has impressed many, a part of his game which was perhaps overlooked previously. He is tenacious in the tackle, demanding in his instructions to his teammates, and has become an immoveable object in Rodgers’ system over the last two years.
Many expect the key to a victory over Basel in Switzerland lays in the midfield, so a fit and fighting Henderson is key to breaking down a team which has shown its stubbornness in this competition of late.
His boundless energy and growing creativity alongside an ever improving Adam Lallana is the key link between defence and attack for Liverpool. With Raheem Sterling continuing his rise at the elite level and Mario Ballotelli settling into Liverpool life week by week, there is a sense of optimism that this exciting attacking line up can thrive, with Jordan Henderson the catalyst of it all. Tonight in Basel may give the fans creed that the future looks bright for Liverpool.
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