With all the customary pomp and ceremony, UEFA got its 2009-10 Champions League Group Stage draw underway in Monaco right on schedule. General Secretary David Taylor presided over their showcase event, with Pedro Pinto and Melanie Winiger providing the glitz and glamour.
Liverpool along with the other seeded teams were somewhere in Pot 1 and as fate would have it, were the first team to be drawn and were placed in Group E.
Pot 2, the so-called second tier teams, contained the likes to previous winners such Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Juventus. All Liverpool fans held their breathes as this was the Pot that held the team that would, in all likelihood, provide us with our toughest test with all of us hoping not to draw those past winners.
We didn’t have to wait long, as the second team drawn, Lyon, drew Group E as their Group and we all let out a sign of relief. We had avoided the big guns in the group stage.
From Pot 3, we avoided a potentially tricky trip to Fernando Torres’ old stomping ground of Atletico Madrid, whom we played last term and earlier in pre-season, and drew Fiorentina of Italy.
And from the "pot of the first timers", Pot 4, we drew Debreceni of Hungary.
So our opponents in this year Champions League Group stage were Lyon, Fiorentina, and Debreceni.
Fate could have been more fortuitous but I think all Reds fans can be quite satisfied.
Rafa, being as diplomatic as ever, was quoted as saying “You know in the Champions League there will always be difficult games and tough teams to play against.” But if truth be told, I think Rafa will be quite content.
A decidedly important factor in European football is the travel and teams can do well to avoid long tiring trips to the outer reaches of the continent. In drawing teams from France, Italy and Hungary, we have ensured that at least the travel will not be arduous. Confirming this Rafa stated, “The important thing as always is that the travelling isn’t too bad, we don’t have too far to go for any of the games.”
So never having faced any our upcoming opponents in a competitive environment before, what can we expect from our foes in Group E?
Team: Olympique Lyon
Location: Lyon, France
Stadium and capacity: Stade de Gerland (41,044)
Finished last season: 3rd
Flight time: Approx. 2hrs
Star Players: Sidney Govou, Lisandro López, Jean-Alain Boumsong.
What can Liverpool expect?
Lyon are not the powerhouse of French football they once were. The team that won Ligue 1 seven consecutive times between 2002 and 2008 has all but broken up, with Sidney Govou being the only real star left from that era.
The likes of Juninho and most notably Karim Benzema having moved on at the end of last season has spelt a time of re-building for the French giants.
The defense is marshaled by Jean-Alain Boumsong, whom we all know from his unsuccessful foray into the English game. While with Newcastle, Boumsong never really got to grips with the Premier League and showed a fallibility that inspired little confidence in his defensive capabilities. Never one to show an appetite for the physical side of the game, he will not be relishing the idea of coming up against the pace, power and strength of Torres and co.
Liverpool’s defence will be up against Sidney Govou and Lisandro López.
Captain of the side, Govou, is an attacking winger with pace and creativity. Although he has never been a prolific goal scorer and has often been criticized for not stepping up during big games, Govou still has the flair and unpredictability to create chances for the likes of López.
Lisandro López has been Lyon’s big summer buy to replace the departed Benzema. Coming in from Porto with a big reputation and price tag to match, he has a keen eye for goal and showed his class in last term’s Champions League campaign where he finished as the tournament’s fourth highest goal scorer with six goals.
At Anfield on match day 3 (20 October 2009), Liverpool should have enough class and power to comfortably win through.
Away on match day 4 (4 November 2009), Liverpool will face a sterner test. But a strong combative performance, laced with the strength, organization and the experience Liverpool show in European away games should ensure we get a good result.
Location: Florence, Italy
Stadium and capacity: Stadio Artemio Franchi (47,282)
Finished last season: 4th
Flight time: Approx. 3hrs
Star Players: Adrian Mutu, Alberto Gilardino.
What can Liverpool expect?
Fiorentina were one of the clubs involved in the 2006 Serie A matching fixing scandal and were relegated to Serie B. On appeal, however, they were reinstated to Serie A and also managed to get a 19-point penalization down to 15. Despite, this enormous set-back, Foirentina ended that season capably securing a place in the UEFA Cup.
Subsequent seasons have seen them once again cement themselves as one of the quality teams in Serie A finishing last season in fourth. In the final qualifying stages Fiorentina edged past Sporting Lisbon on away goals to qualify for the group stages.
Liverpool fans will remember Adrian Mutu who has resurrected his career after being sacked by Chelsea in 2004 for testing positive for cocaine. The Romanian striker has certainly found his goalscoring touch and will be one of the main danger men that the Liverpool defence will have to keep a close eye on. Last term Mutu plundered 13 goals in the 19 games he started in Serie A.
Mutu forms a deadly partnership with Italian international striker Alberto Gilardino. The six-foot, 27-year-old Italian scored 19 goals in the 24 games he started in Serie A last campaign and together with Mutu’s 13 were one of the most feared strike forces in Italy.
At Anfield on the last round of group games (9 December 2009), Liverpool hopefully have already secured their qualifications into the next round and this match may be a dead rubber. But as with all games, Rafa will be looking to win, and hopefully with the pressure off, Liverpool can put on a show and ease of victory. However, if qualification is dependant on this game, well we all know what European nights at Anfield when a win is needed can be like. Foirentina will then feel the might that is Liverpool FC in Europe. In either case Liverpool should pick up the three points.
Away on match day 2 (29 September 2009) could be the trickiest game of our group stage matches. With great support from loyal fans, we can expect a tough encounter and if Fiorentina’s own dynamic duo is clicking then a solid Liverpool away performance from our defence will be needed.
Although we fans would like to see us attack from the kick-off, we all know that Rafa will be playing his masterly European tactics and we may look to play on the counter and snatch an away goal or two. But I think Rafa would be happy with a good away draw, especially as this will only be the second game of the campaign.
Team: Debreceni VSC or just Debrecen (nicknamed Loki)
Location: Debrecen, Hungary
Liverpool’s away match will be played at Stadium Puskás Ferenc in Budapest (68,976)
Finished last season: 1st
Flight time: Approx. 4hrs
Star players: No real stars but defender Lászlo Bodnár and striker Gergely Rudolf have been called up to the national team squad for the upcoming matches against Sweden and Portugal.
What can Liverpool expect?
Luckily, Liverpool have experience with Hungarian football through their relationship with MTK and also have several up and coming Hungarian youngsters in their ranks currently out on loan such as Krisztian Nemeth, Andreas Simon. And with 19-year-old goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi on the bench at Bolton last weekend, Liverpool know more about Hungarian football than most of the other Champions League teams.
Loki have faced English opposition before in the Champions League qualifying stages of the 2005-06 campaign where they were beaten home and away by Manchester United, losing 6-0 on aggregate.
Liverpool kick off this campaign with what should be the easiest of their Group stage matches, when they host Loki on match day 1 on 16 September 2009. Despite respecting all opponents that come to Anfield, this should be a very comfortable 3 points, a clean sheet and a healthy number in the gold difference column. Rafa may decide to give some of the fringe players a run out, but should start will all his big guns and send out a positive message.
In the away leg on match day 5 (24 November 2009), Liverpool will thankfully be travelling to Budapest and not Debrecen. This will satisfy both teams, with the Reds travelling to a major European city and not a provincial one and Loki being able to play in front of a larger crowd. Again this should be a banker and Liverpool should again come away with a healthy win.
So in summary, while the Reds were not handed the best draw of all the clubs, they can be relatively happy with Group E. Maximum points from the home games is a must and on paper looks very achievable and an away win in Hungary should be expected.
The away games in Italy and France are ones that could prove a little tricky; with the game against Fiorentina possibly posing Rafa the great threat to what could very well be a group that sees Liverpool cruise through with maximum points. However, solid away draws should also be enough to see the Reds comfortably into the next phase.