The 2020/21 Champions League is firmly on the horizon now that the draw has been made for the group stage.
Liverpool may have been top seeds, but they face a tricky group alongside Dutch champions Ajax, as well as Atalanta who reached last season’s quarter-finals. Topped off with Danish champions FC Midtjylland, Liverpool’s group is no walk in the park.
And it’s not always about the teams you draw, but when you’re scheduled to play them.
A midweek away trip in Europe is a far more fearsome prospect if you have to go up against title rivals three days later. Managers must rest and rotate players as they balance tricky trips to Europe with vital Premier League clashes. Navigating this period while remaining in all competitions is the challenge.
And with Liverpool desperate to compete on all fronts, there’s a strong case that the Reds should try their utmost to qualify for the Champions League knock-out stages as soon as possible to avoid a tricky end to 2020 and maintain their momentum in the Premier League.
Because while they are among the favourites for the Champions League, they may have a tougher time of it given how the fixtures have fallen.
Liverpool kick off their Champions League campaign with a trip to Ajax (October 21) just four days after they play Merseyside rivals Everton at Goodison Park. Tricky, but a home match against Sheffield United three days after the trip to the Netherlands certainly softens the blow.
The home leg against FC Midtjylland (October 27) is then sandwiched between the match against the Blades as well as a visit from West Ham. These should all be winnable games and boss Jürgen Klopp will certainly expect maximum points by this stage.
Things then get a little harder. Liverpool’s away trip to Atalanta (November 3) comes just four days before a visit to the Etihad to play title rivals Manchester City.
Klopp will be desperate to take maximum points from both, but three points against Atalanta and three wins from three in the Champions League would likely all but secure qualification to the knockout stages.
The Reds will play to win both matches and fans can expect Klopp to field the first team for both. However, should he have to prioritise one over the other, how the Premier League table stands may factor in his decision, especially if Manchester City are off the pace.
Because the match against Atalanta could be even more important than the one against Manchester City.
Liverpool will want to take maximum points from crucial and winnable matches against Leicester, Brighton, Wolves and Fulham that are mixed in closely with games against Atalanta, Ajax and FC Midtjylland. If they can all but free up a rested first team for those Premier League fixtures, with early Champions League qualification too, they will have a much better chance of defending their title.
As for their Champions League and Premier League rivals, things look a little simpler.
Not only have Manchester City been fortunate with a group of Porto, Marseille and Olympiacos, the fixtures have also fallen kindly for them.
Their Champions League opener against Porto at the Etihad (October 21) comes four days after they host Arsenal in the Premier League, which should give Pep Guardiola plenty of time to refresh his side and is made much easier without the need for travelling.
Next up, a visit to Marseille (October 27) is sandwiched between comfortable away trips to West Ham and Sheffield United. And they need not travel ahead of one of their most important matches – they host Olympiacos (November 3) four days before entertaining Liverpool.
A return trip to Greece three weeks later (November 25) also presents no obvious trouble, coming four days after a trip to Tottenham and three days before hosting Burnley.
Guardiola will hope to have qualification wrapped up by that point, but won’t be too concerned if it is not. Matches against strugglers Fulham and Burnley come either side of a trip to Porto (December 1). Guardiola will surely expect the luxury of fielding a second string side during their final group stage match at home against Marseille (December 9), a blessing given it comes just three days before they face Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Bayern Munich will also want to maintain their push for a domestic title while qualifying for the knock-out stages, and should have little trouble doing so. Last season’s champions drew Atletico Madrid, Red Bull Salzburg and Lokomotiv Moscow and will certainly expect to be among the top two. Despite tricky trips to Spain and Russia, their most difficult moment in 2020 will be a home match against Bundesliga rivals RB Leipzig between matches against Atletico and Lokomotiv Moscow.
Juventus and Barcelona will challenge Liverpool for the Champions League, and theirs is a mouthwatering clash in Group G. But while Liverpool’s group features three strong contenders for the knock-out stages, both Juventus and Barcelona will expect to qualify with ease in a group alongside Dynamo Kiev and Ferencvaros.
Juventus, however, may have the edge as Barcelona travel to Turin just days after they host Liga rivals Real Madrid. Juve face no such issues, with their Champions League fixtures against the Spanish giants scheduled well clear of any crucial domestic clashes.
Real Madrid, too, have been let off easy. Their hardest group games, against Inter Milan, are scheduled favourably between matches against Alaves, Villarreal and Valencia.
But spare a thought for Manchester United, who have drawn the short straw when it comes to the group and scheduling.
The Red Devils face a tough trip to Newcastle just three days before a daunting visit to Paris Saint-Germain (October 20), where Neymar and Kylian Mbappe lie in waiting. Then four days later they go up against Premier League rivals Chelsea.
Things hardly get easier as RB Leipzig visit Old Trafford (October 28) in the middle of visits from Chelsea and Arsenal, and to top it all off, boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must take his side to Turkey to face Istanbul Basaksehir (November 24) three days after the match against Arsenal and three days before a trip to Everton.
United will have done remarkably well to have qualified ahead of their final match, given their difficult run and group – and they will face a potentially crucial trip to play RB Leipzig (December 8), four days before they host Manchester City.
So it is clear Liverpool will have to work hard to both defend their Premier League title and qualify for the knock-out stages – but while it could be easier, it could certainly be worse.