Assessing Liverpool’s potential Champions League play-off opponents

Liverpool

Liverpool lie two matches away from reaching the Champions League group stage, having missed out on the competition entirely in the last two seasons; and on the same weekend that they secured their place in the play-offs, results around Europe also went in their favour as it became clear that they would be seeded for the play-off draw.

The Reds can draw any one of five unseeded teams, two of which are known already and the others to come from the previous qualifying round. With all but one of Liverpool’s potential opponents confirmed, let’s look at the teams that could yet dash the Merseysiders’ dreams of returning to the Champions League proper, in descending order of UEFA coefficient.

VIKTORIA PLZEN

The Czech runners-up boast two previous Champions League group stage appearances, most recently in 2013/14, and have been Europa League regulars in recent seasons. They made it to the group stage of UEFA’s secondary competition in each of the last two years, but failed to advance to the knockout rounds.

Key players: Plzen boast some solid, experienced Czech Republic internationals, most notably defenders Roman Hubnik and David Limbersky, while midfielder Milan Petrzela is their main creative source. Austria veteran Andreas Ivanschitz provides steel in midfield.

Previous with Liverpool: None to speak of.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? Their accumulation of European experience could make this a tricky assignment for the Reds, but it would not be the worst draw.

CSKA MOSCOW

The Russians have become seasoned Champions League campaigners, although they were winless in finishing bottom of their group this term and lost twice to Tottenham. They missed out on the domestic title this season to city rivals Spartak, although they finished ahead of Zenit St Petersburg and the steadily improving Rostov.

Key players: Midfield maestro Alan Dzagoev has been linked with major European clubs, even if he hasn’t fulfilled his early promise. Goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is highly experienced and usually reliable. Winger Zoran Tosic is dangerous, too.

Previous with Liverpool: The Reds beat CSKA 3-1 in the 2005 Super Cup.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? No. A trip to Russia to take on one of the toughest teams in the draw is something Liverpool could do without in August.

CLUB BRUGGE

Club Brugge were in the group stage last season but performed dismally in the tournament’s weakest group, losing all six matches. They relinquished their Belgian league title to Anderlecht, too, although they fought off stiff competition to secure the play-off berth. Still, on the evidence of their insipid performances against Leicester and Manchester United in the last two years, they won’t frighten Liverpool unduly.

Key players: Striker Jelle Vossen is getting his career back on track after a poor spell at Middlesbrough a couple of years ago. Claudemir dictates tempo from midfield, while captain Timmy Simons is the heartbeat of this Brugge side.

Previous with Liverpool: Kopites of an older vintage will recall how they beat Brugge in the finals of the 1976 UEFA Cup and 1978 European Cup.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? Definitely. They are weak in terms of European opposition and Belgium would be alright as continental trips go.

SPORTING LISBON

Sporting, with whom Lazar Markovic had a loan spell from Anfield, were bumped back down to third in the Portuguese league this season, having finished second in 2015/16 and avoiding last year’s Champions League play-off round. They were unfortunate to have been in the same group as Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, but finishing behind Legia Warsaw did not go down well with the club’s fan base, and they have not been in the last 16 since 2009.

Key players: Adrien Silva and William Carvalho were unsung heroes of Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph, while their chief goal threats are Bas Dost and ex-Fulham striker Bryan Ruiz.

Previous with Liverpool: The Reds have been to Portugal many times down the years but have never come up against Sporting in European competition.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? Not really. Sporting are a decent outfit and could trouble the Reds.

STEAUA BUCHAREST

The 1986 European champions have fallen on hard times of late, with controversial owner Gigi Becali waging war with the Romanian federation after it tried to remove the Steaua name from the country’s most famous club. They met English opposition in the play-offs last August, when Manchester City wiped the floor with them, and they don’t seem to have a whole lot to suggest that they have improved greatly since.

Key players: The main man is striker Denis Alibec, who had a spell with Inter Milan before returning home. Midfielder Mihai Pintilii is a decent Romanian international, while striker Florin Tanase carries a goal threat.

Previous with Liverpool: The clubs met in the 2010/11 Europa League group stage, when Liverpool won 4-1 at Anfield and drew in Romania.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? Probably. Manchester City exposed their limitations last season and the Reds have the ability to do likewise.

YOUNG BOYS

The Bern club are regulars in European competition but have yet to reach the Champions League group stage and routinely have to play second fiddle to FC Basel domestically. They are the archetypal team who could prove thorny opponents but ultimately don’t have the quality to make a lasting impact.

Key players: Serbian striker Miralem Sulejmani has previously played with Ajax, with Guillaume Hoarau also capable of supplying key goals. Veteran goalkeeper Marco Wolfli and captain Steve von Bergen are the rocks upon which the team is built.

Previous with Liverpool: The sides were in the same group in the 2012/13 Europa League. Liverpool won a crazy game 5-3 in Switzerland but had to settle for a 2-2 draw at Anfield.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? They would provide a stiff test and Liverpool have had some awful nights in Switzerland, but the Reds should have too much for them if they were to meet in August.

NICE

The French football landscape has been dominated by PSG and Monaco in recent times, but Nice are building something notable. Having finished fourth in 2015/16, they went one better last time around and comfortably booked their place in the play-offs. Their charge was spearheaded by a headline-making former Liverpool striker…

Key players: He may have been a disaster at Anfield, but Mario Balotelli has found his second wind at Nice, even if his propensity to moments of madness has not yet disappeared. Alassane Plea is a striker whose stock is steadily rising, while centre-back Dante, once of Bayern Munich, is an imposing if sometimes impetuous figure.

Previous with Liverpool: The teams have never met in European competition.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? Probably not. Nice kept pace with PSG and Monaco for most of the Ligue 1 season, so they are a darn good team who could very well stop Liverpool in their tracks.

HOFFENHEIM

Having risen meteorically from the German amateur ranks to reach the Bundesliga nine years ago, Hoffenheim reached their highest ever position this season and were pipped for an automatic Champions League spot by Borussia Dortmund. Their progress under coach Julian Nagelsmann, who does not turn 30 until July, has been remarkable.

Key players: Top scorer Sandro Wagner has attracted glances of admiration from leading European clubs, with Adam Szalai and a rejuvenated Andrej Kramaric also potent goalscorers. Defender Fabian Schar is rock solid, while Sebastian Rudy bosses midfield.

Previous with Liverpool: The teams have yet to play each other competitively.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? Roberto Firmino might relish a tie against his former club, but Liverpool fans would not like to see them being paired with Hoffenheim. They are arguably the strongest opponents that the Reds could draw in the play-offs.

ISTANBUL BASAKSEHIR

Istanbul Basaksehir have shaken up the Turkish city’s ‘big three’ to turn it into a quartet, making formidable progress since promotion to the top flight three years ago. They have been in the Europa League qualifiers the last two seasons and, in the campaign just finished, they were in contention for the title until the final day, when they were edged out by city rivals Besiktas.

Key players: The standout name is Emmanuel Adebayor, although with the Togolese striker on the wane, the greater danger could come from Bosnian midfielder Edin Visca. Turkish internationals Emre Belozoglou and Volkan Babacan provide ample experience.

Previous with Liverpool: None.

Would Liverpool like to draw them? A trip to Istanbul would obviously evoke cherished memories for Liverpool fans, but if this tie does come to pass, it would represent a serious test for the Reds which could go horrendously wrong.

GREECE RUNNERS-UP

The final matchday in the Greek Superleague UEFA play-offs takes place this weekend, with either PAOK Salonika or AEK Athens set to finish second behind champions Olympiakos. AEK lost to Liverpool in the 1972/73 UEFA Cup, while PAOK have never encountered the Merseysiders.

AEK last played in the Champions League group stage 11 seasons ago, while they have not been in the Europa League proper since 2011/12. They boast former Porto and Werder Bremen striker Hugo Almeida, along with ex-Barcelona defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy. PAOK have yet to qualify for the Champions League proper, but they have been close in recent campaigns. Serbia’s Aleksandar Prijovic is their main threat.

Liverpool should have too much for either of these teams, and while AEK would be slightly preferable, PAOK look well set to clinch the play-off berth.