When Liverpool step out from the tunnel at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on Thursday night it will be their first time back at the Istanbul arena since the most famous night in their recent history. Trailing 3-0 to Italian giants AC Milan at halftime in the 2005 Champions League final, a largely unheralded squad of players in Rafa Benitez’s first season in charge produced an astonishing comeback to deliver the club its fourth European Cup.
Few will be under any illusion that a Europa League Round of 32 second leg against Besiktas presents anything like the same anticipation or prestige. Still, it could yet prove to be a big night in Liverpool’s attempts to get back to that rarified environment. The club went five seasons without playing a Champions League match before last year’s superb season under Brendan Rodgers engineered a return. But this season’s disappointing group-stage exit showed that there was still much work to do. For that work to continue it is vital to become Champions League regulars, allowing a young squad to continue to get top-level experience while being able to attract players of established quality.
The Europa League, for all its critics, presents an enticing opportunity for Liverpool to garner an automatic place in the next season’s group phase, if they can lift the trophy in Warsaw in May. Yet Rodgers must also tread a delicate balancing act. After a woeful start to this season, Liverpool have put together a fine run of form to rise from the Premier League’s mid-table into sixth place, and, crucially, now within just two points of a place in the top four. With five teams separated by four points, chasing just two places, a successful finish remains far from a straightforward path, and it will undoubtedly be made harder, as many teams across Europe have found previously, if they are also committing their full resources to the Europa League.
Rodgers has so far insisted that he intends to do just that in a competition that also presents an opportunity for him to land his first silverware at Anfield. It means his squad, bolstered last summer in an effort to cope with the extra demands of the Champions League, will now be put to the test battling in the Europa League, Premier League, and, indeed the FA Cup.
The Liverpool boss will have to make at least one change to the lineup that won 2-0 at Southampton on Sunday, with Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho having joined an absentee list that also includes Glen Johnson, Mamadou Sakho and the suspended Lazar Markovic. While Henderson has a slight ankle knock, Coutinho may have been handed the chance to rest after a hectic schedule. But the absences severely limit Rodgers’ midfield options, with captain Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva still ruled out.
With just a narrow 1-0 advantage, handed them by Mario Balotelli’s late penalty at Anfield last week, to protect in a hostile environment, it is not an ideal night for blooding youngsters. Yet several will be with the squad in Istanbul, although it would be a major surprise were any to start. Instead, Emre Can could move forward from defense, with Kolo Toure coming in at the back.
Liverpool’s defense has been dramatically improved in recent weeks, but was left grateful for the contribution of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to prevent former Chelsea striker Demba Ba scoring another costly goal against the Reds in the first leg. Ba had scored eight goals in eight European matches this season coming into the tie, yet he and the rest of his side were also shut out in another 1-0 defeat at Eskisehirspor on Sunday. Slaven Bilic’s team do, though, remain top of the Turkish Super Lig.
Prediction: Without their first-choice midfield, it could be a difficult night for Liverpool, as it was, indeed, in the first leg. And if Liverpool are forced to further alter their back three, Ba could well capitalize and this time take one of the chances that comes his way. However, Liverpool should still have enough pace and quality going forward to get an away goal to see them though to the last 16.
Besiktas 1-1 Liverpool
Kickoff time: 1 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1