SUNDAY was a disappointment.
Everton came to Anfield to try and nick a draw and they somehow managed it. It was more down to Liverpool’s profligacy than the visitors’ tactics, despite what Mr Allardicci claims, but it’s done now and all The Reds can do is look forward to better days.
It was a timely reminder this morning that better days are indeed ahead around mid February when Liverpool will be playing in the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in nine years. The draw was made in Nyon, Switzerland by some UEFA folk and the decorated, talented and unfairly gorgeous Xabi Alonso. After gushing about Istanbul being well better than the Champions League he won with Real Madrid in 2014, the Xabster went on to pull Liverpool out of the hat (or plastic fruit bowl) with FC Porto.
I saw a lot of people pre draw saying they wanted Real Madrid, which on one hand I can understand as being in the Champions League is all about big nights, glamour ties and pitting yourself against the best, but there’s no reason Liverpool can’t have those games in the later rounds. Facing a Bayern Munich or Real in the quarter finals and/or semi finals would be just that bit more special.
Drawing the Portuguese side was arguably the best The Reds could have hoped for. There were three clear giants in the draw in Juventus, Bayern and Real, with Porto, Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk the more favourable looking ones. However, with Liverpool’s bad memories of Basel in more than one sense, and the pain in the backside that a trip to Ukraine would be at that time of the season, an away day in sunny Portugal (well, it’ll be sunnier than here anyway) is probably the most welcome of the bunch.
Not an easy tie by any means, but then such a thing doesn’t really exist in the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, with the second leg at Anfield, Liverpool have been given the best chance possible to progress. They’ll just need to make sure they’re as professional as they were against Spartak Moscow.
But just how good are FC Porto these days?
Well, they impressed in their Champions League group. Group G was perhaps the most interesting of all given that all four teams appeared to be more or less of the same ability. It was anyone’s guess as to who would make it through, but maybe the least likely outcome was that both last year’s semi finalists AS Monaco and Naby Keita’s RB Leipzig would be the ones to be eliminated.
Besiktas won 3-1 in Porto on matchday one, and went on to win the group undefeated, but Porto recovered to clinch second. Another defeat away at Leipzig was flanked by a 3-0 win in Monaco and a 3-1 victory in the return game against the German side. A draw in Turkey meant that a win in the final game would see them through, and like their round of 16 opponents, they managed it with ease as they put away Monaco 5-2.
These days they are managed by former Portugal international Sérgio Conceição. The ex-Porto player is perhaps better known for his days in Serie A with Inter, Parma and Lazio. He was also a part of the Portugal national squad when they were doing things like reaching the semi finals of Euro 2000, and he notably scored a hat trick against Germany in the group stages of that competition. Conceição replaced the now Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo in the summer without much fanfare after a short stint at FC Nantes, but has made a good start to the role and currently has them top of the table.
While we were being frustrated by The Blues on Sunday, Porto were battering Vitoria de Setubal 5-0 to stay ahead of Sporting Lisbon on goal difference at the top of Liga Nos. They’re currently the league’s top scorers with 36 goals in 14 games, but more impressive is their defensive record, having conceded just five times.
You might think that having a legendary goalkeeper like Iker Casillas in their ranks is a big reason for that record, but the former Spain international has been out of favour since October, with reports that the club are looking to get his wages off the books in January to avoid Financial Fair Play issues. Casillas’s replacement, Jose Sa, is likely to be the man Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and co will need to beat, and they must not allow themselves to be distracted by the 24-year old’s magnificent beard.
Porto also boast some exceptional talent at full back, with Ricardo Pereira and Alex Telles two of the best in their positions in Europe. They will maraud forward enough to give Liverpool problems in the wide areas, but are also capable at the defensive side should they find themselves under the usual cosh that comes with facing the “Fab Four”. The experienced central pairing of Felipe and Ivan Marcano will likely be shielding Sa and will take some getting through.
Their midfield when at full strength is well balanced, with defensive-minded Danilo Pereira and the more attacking Hector Herrera usually the two main features, flanked by pacy wingers Yacine Brahimi (formerly linked with Liverpool, but then who isn’t?) and Jesus Manuel Corona. They also have the very talented former Atletico Madrid playmaker Oliver Torres to call upon.
Up front Conceição usually goes with two deadly African attackers (imagine that) in Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega, who have got 22 goals between them in Liga Nos this season. Aboubakar also managed five in five in the Champions League group stages.
It is unlikely to be a simple tie for Liverpool, and last time some of us felt this good about a Champions League draw was when The Reds were paired with Portuguese opposition in Benfica in 2006, so treading carefully will indeed be the name of the game.
Jürgen Klopp and his team will have extensively scouted the Azuis e Brancos by the time they travel to the Estádio do Dragão in February, and it is highly unlikely that they will take Porto lightly, knowing that Liverpool have a great chance to do something pretty special in the Champions League this season, and how important such a run would be in convincing prospective future signings that Anfield is an incredibly exciting place to be playing football right now. That of course on top of the more important factor of giving us all great nights on the ale.
Liverpool will go into the game as favourites, and if they can remain injury free, maintain form and perhaps even add to their ranks in January then there’s every reason for Porto to be more scared of The Reds than The Reds will be of them. Not that I’m comparing them to a spider in the bath or anything.
Klopp’s men have thousands of games (roughly) between now and February, and by the time they travel to Portugal will hopefully be in a great position domestically as well as in Europe, but that will only be possible if they concentrate and don’t become distracted by upcoming Champions League nights.
Not me though, I’ll be heading to a Christmas Carol service with the full intention of sabotaging it by replacing In The Bleak Midwinter with the Champions League theme, sort of like when Bart Simpson got the entire church to sing In A Gadda Da Vida.
Champions League nights, they are a-coming.