It’s been another exciting week in Liverpool’s continuing European adventure. First, we completed the routine demolition of Toulouse on Tuesday night with an emphatic 4-0 win at Anfield, for a convincing 5-0 aggregate score. It looked like it was something of a stroll for the Reds, without even breaking into much of a sweat.
That was all the more impressive considering we were without both Gerrard and Carragher, and took advantage of our squad depth to give several players a run out. Then, last night, it was the draw for the group stage, with top seed Liverpool being slotted into Group A along with FC Porto, Olympique de Marseille, and BeÅŸiktaÅŸ JK. That gives us a nice balance of the novel with the familiar for this season’s European campaign.
BeÅŸiktaÅŸ are the unknown quantity in this group, as we have never been drawn against them before. But, it won’t be a complete trip into the unknown since BeÅŸiktaÅŸ is one of three clubs in Istanbul (along with Galatasaray SK and FenerbahÃ§e SK). That means another journey to the Turkish capital, which is a trip that has given us some mixed but ultimately satisfying results over the last few years. Also, there is a definite Liverpool connection with the club through previous managers Gordon Milne (1987 to 1993) and John Toshack (1997-1999). Those two former Reds brought a few trophies to the club with three Turkish League Championships (and two runners-up) as well as three Turkish Cups (and one runner-up).
The club (nicknamed Kara Katallar ‘“ The Black Eagles) was founded in 1903, during the days of the Ottoman Empire and became the first officially registered Turkish sports club. Their full name is BeÅŸiktaÅŸ Jimnastik KulÃ¼bÃ¼, or Besiktas Gymnastics club, with branches of the organisation competing over the years in wrestling, boxing, weight-lifting, gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, handball, chess, and of course football. It isn’t clear which (if any) of those other sports will provide them with useful experience, but as they were drawn from the fourth pot then we should be confident that we can prevail no matter what type of game they play. We’ll find out just how good they are when we travel there on October 24th, and then again when they visit us at Anfield on November 6th.
Olympique de Marseille, drawn from the third pot, is a club that we have encountered before. They definitely have experience in Europe having won the Champions League in 1993 with a 1-0 win over Milan, just two years after finishing as runners-up after losing on penalties to Red Star Belgrade in 1991. They were also runners up twice in the UEFA Cup (1999 and 2004) and more recently were winners of the UEFA Intertoto Cup in 2005 and 2006.
Their most interesting European matches (as far as we are concerned) were during the 2003-04 season. Liverpool lost out to Marseille in what turned out to be Gerard Houllier’s last European match as Liverpool’s manager. That was in the fourth round, with Marseille progressing all the way to the final where they came up against Valencia. The Spanish side won 2-0 to take the trophy, which was the last European match for Rafa Benitez as Valencia’s manager.
It would be easy to say that we have a definite advantage over Marseille after Rafa was able to lead Valencia to victory over them, giving him and his staff some considerable knowledge of the club that we have to face now. But, we have to remember that they will also have a considerable amount of knowledge of us from former Liverpool players Djibril CissÃ© and Bolo Zenden. We’ll be welcoming the two ex-Reds to Anfield on October 3rd, with the return match at the Stade VÃ©lodrome on December 11th.
FC (Futebol Clube do) Porto are to be the first of our opponents, and we begin this season’s European odyssey with a trip to the EstÃ¡dio do DragÃ£o (Dragon Stadium) on September 18th. The return match at Anfield is on November 28th, which could be the decider between first and second place in the group. They were drawn from pot 2, where they were ranked based on their past success in European competition. Twenty years ago in 1987 they won their first of two European Cups, 2-1 over Bayern Munich, and also won the UEFA Super Cup with a 2-0 aggregate win over Ajax. Those were followed with the Intercontinental Cup, winning 1-0 in extra time over PeÅˆarol. One thing that Porto have in common with BeÅŸiktaÅŸ is that they are also a sporting empire, with associate clubs competing in handball, basketball, and roller hockey.
We came up against them in 2001 in the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup, where we won 2-0 on aggregate on our way to winning the trophy. Two seasons later in 2003, Porto were progressing in the UEFA Cup while we were being humbled in the Champions League group stage by Basle, and also of course by Valencia (who were managed by Rafa). That knocked us out of the Champions League and put us into the UEFA Cup third round, where we later lost out to Celtic, who in turn lost in the final to Porto. That was under their new manager Jose Mourinho who led them on to win the Champions League the following season in 2004. Since then, they have been in the Champions League each successive season, but under different managers following Mourinho’s departure in 2004 they have failed to progress beyond the second round.
Now that we know a little more about our opposition, it’s still difficult to say whether this draw has been kind to us or not. When we see that we have two former European Champions to overcome it might not look so easy; but after seeing the performances of our squad so far this season we have to be confident of success. This is just the beginning of what we believe will be a long and successful European campaign; and with what we’ve seen recently, we can look forward to proving that the road to Moscow is paved with goals.