After overcoming their sluggish start to the Premier League season by thumping Bournemouth 9-0 at the weekend, Liverpool will beat off stiff competition from Napoli, Ajax, and Rangers to reach the last 16 as group leaders, writes Ruby Malone.Embed from Getty Images
Last season’s Champions League runners-up Liverpool had a surprisingly feeble start to the 2022/23 Premier League campaign. They gained only two points in their first three games and suffered an embarrassing defeat to their arch-rivals Manchester United, who’ve also made a slow start this term. The Reds have been contending with serious injury problems, and they’ll be hoping key players such as Diogo Jota, Thiago and Joel Matip return to help kickstart their European charge.
Manager Jurgen Klopp will want their first victory of the season – a 9-0 demolition of newly-promoted side Bournemouth on Saturday– to be the start of a winning run. They will certainly need this confidence with their first Champions League group game looming next Wednesday, when they will travel to Italy to face Napoli just days after the small matter of a derby against Everton. Liverpool haven’t had an easy time at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in recent years, losing there in the group stages of both the 2018/19 and 2019/20 seasons. With a depleted squad and tough Premier League fixtures in between their group games across September and October (Arsenal, Tottenham, and Chelsea away, and Man City at home), Klopp will consider a strong start to the competition essential.Embed from Getty Images
Rangers have returned to the Champions League group stages for the first time in over a decade after triumphing over PSV Eindhoven in the play-offs. Their first fixture is an exciting away trip next Wednesday, when they will take on Ajax at the Johan Cruijff ArenA – and just like group rivals Liverpool, they also have a big derby with Celtic to contend with first this Saturday.
The Gers were the Europa League runners-up last season, just losing out on lifting the trophy to Eintracht Frankfurt in a devastating 5-4 penalty shootout. They may be considered the underdogs of the group, but manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst is determined to show that they are up to the challenge. “We’re here to compete. We want to compete with the best teams in Europe. It will be difficult but it’s an experience I will love,” he said.
Dutch giants Ajax have a solid recent history in the Champions League, securing a spot in the group stages for the past four seasons and making it to the semi-final in 2018/19. Much of this European success was under manager Erik ten Haag, however, and it’s still unclear how the club will adjust to his departure. The exits of players, such as Lisandro Martinez, Noussair Mazraoui Andre Onana, Sebastien Haller and Ryan Gravenberch, will also have a major impact on the squad’s performance.
One person who was delighted by the Group A draw was ex-Rangers player Calvin Bassey. The Gers sold the Nigerian international to Ajax this summer for a club record fee of just under £23million. The Dutch side humorously posted his reaction to the draw on social media, showing his delight at returning to his old stomping ground.Embed from Getty Images
Back in the Champions League after two years out, Napoli will be looking to regain respect in the competition. They made it to the knockout round of the Europa League last season but were unlucky to draw Barcelona, who beat them 5-3 on aggregate in their play-off. The departure of club legends Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens means the team that qualified for the competition has been disrupted, but they’re still playing good football and are scoring goals for fun, with nine in their previous two Serie A games before being held to a 0-0 draw at Fiorentina yesterday.
Their new Georgian signing Khvicha Kvaratskhelia scored three goals in his first two appearances making this the “most prolific start to any player’s career in the history of the club“, as reported by The Athletic. One thing’s for sure, the hostile atmosphere at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona will make it a difficult away trip for the other Group A teams.Embed from Getty Images
Must-watch game: Rangers v Liverpool
With both stadiums notorious for their raucous atmospheres, it’s a toss up between this fixture at Anfield or the Ibrox showdown in October, but Rangers’ glorious return to the competition after 12 years will buoy their fans on that bit extra. The two sides have never met in a competitive game but they certainly know enough about each other, so it’s a must-watch clash – though it would have been even tastier had Steven Gerrard still been in charge of the Gers! This clash has been dubbed the ‘Battle of Britain’, but with two extremely proud and passionate fanbases, it would be just as apt to title it ‘Battle of the 12th man’.
Wednesday, September 7: Ajax v Rangers, 5.45pm; Napoli v Liverpool, 8pm
Tuesday, September 13: Liverpool v Ajax; Rangers v Napoli, both 8pm
Tuesday, October 4: Liverpool v Rangers; Ajax v Napoli, both 8pm
Wednesday, October 12: Napoli v Ajax, 5.45pm; Rangers v Liverpool, 8pm
Wednesday, October 26: Napoli v Rangers; Ajax v Liverpool, both 8pm
Tuesday, November 1: Liverpool v Napoli; Rangers v Ajax, both 8pm
Dangerman: Darwin Nunez
Ballon d’Or nominee and Liverpool’s record signing Darwin Nunez will be out to prove his worth in the coming months. With his overpowering presence, determination and killer instinct, this isn’t great news for Liverpool’s opposition. The Uruguayan appeared to get his Premier League career off to a great start, scoring in their league opener at Fulham, but a red card in the next match against Crystal Palace tarnished this and saw him banned for three games.
He has since apologised on social media and will be looking to swiftly erase this blot on his copybook, get his shooting boots back on and bring the fanbase back onside. One team that has first-hand experience of Nunez’s threat are Ajax – he scored the winner for Benfica that knocked the Dutch side out at the last-16 stage last season. No doubt the Ajax players will be out for revenge!Embed from Getty Images
Finishing place predictions: 1. Liverpool, 2. Napoli, 3. Ajax, 4. Rangers
Six-time winners Liverpool are the most successful British side in Champions League history and are the joint-third most successful team overall with Bayern Munich, so there are high expectations on them to get through to the last 16 with relative ease. Ajax are still adjusting to a mass exodus of players, with their Brazilian star winger Antony looking set to join Manchester United, so free-scoring Napoli could pip them to the second spot. Rangers will put up a good fight for third place but their lack of recent experience in the competition may just see them finish bottom.
Follow Ruby on Twitter @RubyGMalone