After disappointment in the Champions League, Liverpool return to continental action on Thursday when hosting Besiktas in the first leg of their Europa League last 32 tie. In their first season back in the Champions League following a five-year absence, Liverpool won just one of their six group games and fell into the Europa League following a home draw with Basel last December. But, while traditionally seen as scant consolation, Europe’s secondary competition this year carries far more allure, with the prize of a place in next season’s Champions League on offer for the winners.
For Liverpool that will present a particular appeal, given they face a real struggle to get back into the competition through the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers’ men endured a woeful start to the season to leave them playing catch up in the race for the top four. The Merseysiders have been doing just that in recent weeks, having lost just once in their last 16 appearances to take them up to seventh in the Premier League and into the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. Still, despite competing on multiple fronts, Rodgers has insisted that the Europa League will not be relegated to secondary status at Anfield, with the aim of lifting a first trophy at the club foremost in his thoughts.
“I said at the beginning of the season that one of the objectives for us was to win a trophy,” he said at his press conference on Friday, according to Liverpool’s official website. “Hopefully you'll have seen from the efforts that we've put into the cup competitions that we want to do everything we can to win a trophy. This competition is no different - it's a very prestigious competition and a competition that we want to do well in.”
Liverpool’s form has improved sharply since switching formations to one featuring a three-man defense, helping to provide more defensive security and to rediscover the attacking vigor they displayed last season. And Rodgers sees no reason why their approach can’t give them success in Europe.
“We'll find out, if we play that way,” he added. “It's a way of working that suits our players. There is no tougher league than the Premier League - it's a really tough competition with top-class players and outstanding managers. It has worked very well. If we decide to play that way in the European competitions, we'll hold no fear.”
Liverpool’s revival has also been helped in recent matches by the return of Daniel Sturridge. The striker was denied a single appearance in Liverpool’s Champions League campaign due to a frustrating thigh injury, but has scored twice since his return last month, including in the 2-1 FA Cup win at Crystal Palace on Saturday. However, Rodgers will be unable to call upon captain Steven Gerrard on Thursday, with the midfielder still recovering from a hamstring problem. Winger Lazar Markovic is also ruled out, after been handed down a four-match suspension for his sending off against Basel.
Liverpool’s opponents have already racked up plenty of experience against English opposition this season. While going down to defeat, Besiktas gave Arsenal a real scare in their Champions League playoff last August, and then took four points off Tottenham in the group phase of the Europa League. The man leading the Turkish side’s attack has plenty of knowledge of the English game, too, and will be all too familiar to Liverpool supporters. It was Demba Ba who seized upon Steven Gerrard’s slip to score Chelsea’s opening goal at Anfield last April and help inflict a defeat that cost Liverpool the Premier League title. The Senegal striker has scored 13 league goals this season to fire Slaven Bilic’s side to the top of the table.
Prediction: Besiktas have been particularly impressive away from home this season. The defeat at the Emirates Stadium was their only loss on the road until a much-changed lineup was knocked out of the cup last week. Yet Liverpool have been impressive in recent weeks and especially at Anfield, where they haven’t been beaten since November. The presence of Sturridge leading the attack makes a massive difference and Liverpool should get a first-leg advantage, albeit a narrow one.
Liverpool 2-1 Besiktas
Kickoff time: 3:05 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 2