David Freeman identifies three teams Liverpool should keep an eye on in qualifying for the UEFA Champions League.
It has taken longer than many passionate Reds would have liked, but Jürgen Klopp finally appears to have the team he wants at Anfield.
As they did in 2004/05, Liverpool will once more enter the Champions League at the final qualifying stage – but greatness often grows from the smallest seed. When Liverpool faced Grazer AK in their humble 2,000-capacity stadium, in the final qualifying round thirteen years ago, nobody could have foreseen the momentous Istanbul night that would unfold ten months later.
Today, the opponents that lie in wait for Liverpool have yet to be determined. However, with the intricacies of the seeding system taken into account, three clubs, in particular, are identified as potential early terminators of what should be an exciting Champions League campaign for Liverpool.
This is where it all began for Liverpool in the season they became champions of Europe for the fifth time…
Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic)
Assuming that every tie in the first three qualifying rounds is won by a seeded club, Viktoria Plzen will be the highest-ranked unseeded entrant in the non-champions knockout pool. The dawn of the 2010s spelt the end of Sparta Prague’s once-unbreakable dominance, with Plzen winning a first league title in 2011 under the stewardship of Pavel Vrba. Three more league titles along with one Czech Super Cup win have enabled Plzen’s stock to soar.
Danger Man: Michael Krmencik– Should Plzen get to the final qualifying round and cause an upset, then their presence on any accumulator slip – combined with the bonuses currently available for European football betting accumulators – could see a bettor win big. With ten goals in 2016/17, Krmencik was Plzen’s top goalscorer and would be a likely instigator if his team was to spring a shock at any time.
Best UEFA CL performance: Plzen, for thus far the only time in their history, reached the group stage in 2013/14. They lost five times and won just once – against CSKA Moscow – in a group dominated by Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
CSKA Moscow (Russia)
CSKA surrendered their crown to hated local rivals Spartak Moscow. Aside from a dreadful spell in October 2016, which saw CSKA lose three times and win once, there was little that the former ‘poster club’ of the Soviet Union could do about the league title’s destination in 2016/17. CSKA did, however, finish with a vastly superior goal difference to Spartak, and the club’s credentials in the final third are in no doubt.
Danger Man: Fedor Chalov – Only 19 years old, the Russian midfielder averaged a goal every three games and rarely failed to flaunt his skills in drifting from deeper areas into the final third.
Best UEFA CL performance: CSKA reached the quarter finals in 2010 but lost both legs to eventual winners Inter Milan.
Chalov is a rising star over in Russia, and may soon be courted by Europe’s biggest clubs.
Club Brugge (Belgium)
2016/17 heralded a brand new structure to the Belgian league, with a two-tiered first division in which the top six teams of Division A contest a playoff for the championship. Club Brugge finished second and surrendered the title to Anderlecht after losing 2-0 to their rivals back on 23 April.
Danger Man: Jelle Vossen – Once linked to a raft of Premier League clubs, Vossen was Club Brugge’s top goalscorer in 2016/17 with 16 goals in 39 appearances.
Best UEFA CL performance: Club Brugge reached the final of the European cup in 1978, and faced none other than Liverpool – also the reigning holders – captained by the late, great Emlyn Hughes. There was to be no shock result, as a swaggering Liverpool side contained the Belgians effectively, and ran out 1-0 winners at Wembley courtesy of ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish’s 64th-minute strike.
That meeting with Club Brugge gave Liverpool a second European Cup. The quest for a sixth may well begin with that same opposition…