Liverpool re-enters European competition as a different team than the one that fizzled out of the UEFA Champions League in early December.
The Reds boast the same players, coaches and ambitions as they did two months ago, but their dramatic turnaround has them poised to compete for honors in England and abroad.
Liverpool begins UEFA Europa League play Thursday with a round of 32 meeting with Besiktas. The Reds welcome the Turkish club to Anfield, hoping to announce themselves as contenders to win European soccer’s second-tier competition with an emphatic victory in the first leg. The teams will play the second leg in Istanbul next Thursday.
The Europa League doesn’t only represent a fine chance for Liverpool to win a trophy this season. It also provides a route back into the Champions League, as the winner will qualify for a coveted spot in next season’s group stage. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers told reporters that his team will take the competition seriously.
“I said at the beginning of the season that one of the objectives for us was to win a trophy,” Rodgers said, according to LiverpoolFC.com. “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.
“We’re very confident at the moment in terms of our performance. Our focus is really only the next game.
“The players over a number of games have been absolutely fantastic. We just want to continue with this mentality and performance level.”
Rodgers is in his third season on the Reds’ hot seat. He has yet to bring a trophy back to Anfield.
Here are a few other things to watch for in Liverpool-Besiktas:
Liverpool’s switch from a four-back formation to one featuring only three defenders is widely credited for increasing Liverpool’s attacking potency and strengthening its defense. Rodgers was coy when asked whether he would persist with its 3-4-2-1 formation in Europe, instead stressing the merits of his high-pressure, up-tempo philosophy.
“If we decide to play that way in the European competitions, we’ll hold no fear,” Rodgers said. “The system is irrelevant. For us, it’s more about the return of our identity as a team and our style of football, which is ultimately out there to win games.
Steven Gerrard’s status
A persistent hamstring problem has slowed Gerrard in 2015. The Liverpool captain limped off the field in the second half of his team’s win over Tottenham on Feb. 10. He missed Saturday’s win over Crystal Palace and already has been ruled out for the first leg against Besiktas.
Liverpool is stronger with Gerrard than without him, and the 34-year-old undoubtedly is hungry to lead the Reds to European glory before he joins the Los Angeles Galaxy at the end of the season.
Lazar Markovic banned
Markovic has been a revelation on Liverpool’s right flank since Rodgers switched the formation in mid-December. UEFA banned the Serbian for four games Tuesday. Jordon Ibe, 19, could replace him, giving the Reds a similar attacking threat and defensive resolve to the one Markovic provides.
Thumbnail photo via LiverpooLFC.com
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