Liverpool head to Belgrade on Monday, bringing back memories of an unsuccessful but ultimately defining away clash with Red Star 45 years ago.
For all their rich continental heritage, the Reds haven’t always been among the cream of the European crop.
That is highlighted by a trip to face Red Star back in 1973, when their impact in Europe’s top competition was still in its infancy.
Defeat for the Reds
It was October 1973, a European Cup second round, first leg, when Bill Shankly’s reign as Liverpool manager was still hurtling forward in impressive fashion.
His Reds side had been crowned First Division champions five months earlier, his third top-flight league title at the club, and they had also clinched the club’s first European trophy, the UEFA Cup – defeating Borussia Monchengladbach in the final.
Playing in the European Cup for only the third time in their history, the 1973/74 campaign was set to be another test entirely.
The Reds eased past Jeunesse Esch in the first round, prevailing 3-1 on aggregate, with a good but seemingly beatable Red Star side standing before them next.
Red Star had reigned supreme in the Yugoslav First League the previous season, and a 1-0 defeat to Leeds United four days earlier had left Liverpool eighth in the First Division, but it was still a strong side that lined up at the Marakana.
Ray Clemence was in goal, with Tommy Smith and Larry Lloyd the centre-back duo ahead of him, and Chris Lawler and Alec Lindsay operating at right and left-back respectively.
A combative midfield of captain Emlyn Hughes and Peter Cormack was complemented by the width provided by Ian Callaghan and Steve Heighway, while the legendary strike pairing of Kevin Keegan and John Toshack led the line.
In fact, nine of those 11 players had started when the First Division title was clinched against Leicester City the previous May, with Cormack and Toshack the only two that didn’t feature that day.
Despite their obvious quality, it proved to be a night where Shankly and his players’ egos were given a good bruising by their opponents.
Slobodan Jankovic fired the hosts into a 1-0 lead shortly before half-time and Vladislav Bogicevic doubled the advantage soon after the restart.
Lawler, a full-back renowned for having an eye for goal—he scored 61 in 569 Liverpool appearances—did give the tie a different complexion with 18 minutes remaining, but the Reds were comfortably the inferior team on the night.
All of a sudden their task of staying in the European Cup looked daunting.
What Happened Next?
A buoyant Anfield expected the Reds to turn the tie around in the second leg, such was the belief that existed under Shankly in those days.
It was a warranted level of self-confidence in many ways, given the strides made under the Scot and the fact that they were champions of England and the UEFA Cup holders.
Red Star once again made the Merseysiders look like they were playing football from a bygone era, though, even if both sides created chances.
Vojin Lazarevic opened the scoring with a stunning strike in front of the Kop on the hour mark, which gave Liverpool a mountain to climb.
Lawler equalised in the 84th minute, again showing his finishing prowess, but Jankovic put the icing on the cake in stoppage time with a free-kick.
Liverpool’s exit was an obvious blow at the time, but it was a tie that played a huge part in altering their European approach from that point on.
Lawler believed watching Red Star’s style made the Reds “more cautious and have a more patient style,” while Shankly later admitted that “the Europeans showed that building from the back is the only way to play.”
Shankly moved on the following year and Bob Paisley came in, and it wasn’t long before Liverpool became the kings of Europe under his stewardship.
They won the European Cup in 1977, 1978 and 1981, and under Joe Fagan in 1984, with plenty to thanks Red Star for, in hindsight.
Without that humbling two-legged defeat, would things have panned out differently?
Red Star Belgrade 2-1 Liverpool
European Cup Second Round, First Leg, Marakana
October 24, 1973
Goals: Jankovic 39′, Bogicevic 48′; Lawler 72′
Red Star Belgrade: Petrovic, Krivokuca, Bogicevic, Pavlovic, Dojcinovski, Baralic, Jankovic, Karasi, Lazarevic, Acimovic, Petrovic
Liverpool: Clemence, Lawler, Smith, Lloyd, Lindsay, Callaghan, Hughes, Cormack, Heighway, Keegan, Toshack