Everyone who has ever experienced European football at Anfield has a memory. For the young Phil Thompson it was standing in the crowd watching Gordon Milne and Gerry Byrne parading the FA Cup before they played Internazionale in the 1965 European Cup semi-finals. “The Kop was probably the greatest I have ever seen,” he recalled. “That whole night my eyes were fixed on the Kop. I was mesmerised.”
One of Kenny Dalglish’s most enduring memories is of Liverpool being knocked out by Nottingham Forest after winning the European Cup in successive seasons and Granada Television playing “The Party’s Over” over the closing credits. Years later, he would continue to bait Granada’s commentator, Gerald Sinstadt, over it.
On Tuesday night, Philippe Coutinho will have his first taste of what European football does to Anfield. “It is very important for me personally,” he said. “I remember my time as a youngster in Brazil watching the Champions League. It’s a dream to actually play in it. There is a different atmosphere with the Champions League, it is more like a show or a concert.”
If that is the case, then Tuesday’s opening act is very much a bottom-of-the-bill affair. After Liverpool’s five years away from the competition it might have been fitting if Real Madrid were their opponents, for they have won more European trophies than any other English club. Instead, they face a team familiar only to very serious aficionados of Eastern European football; the champions not of Spain or Germany, but Bulgaria.
Nevertheless, Anfield has always had a taste for the sentimental and the romantic, and Ludogorets Razgrad’s progress is certainly that. Having forced Steaua Bucharest into a penalty shoot-out after losing their goalkeeper to a second yellow card in the last minute of extra time, their centre-half Cosmin Moti scored one penalty and saved two more.
The last time Liverpool entered the Champions League they also opened at Anfield against Eastern European opposition: the Hungarian champions Debrecen. Dirk Kuyt gave them a laboured 1-0 win at Anfield and then it all went horribly wrong against Lyon and Fiorentina, both of whom won on Merseyside. The party once more was over.
It took four seasons and as many managerial changes for Liverpool to return to compete for what Steven Gerrard calls the “cup with the big ears”. For this draw, Liverpool were in pot three – nothing sends you down Uefa’s rankings quite as quickly as not qualifying for the competition – and although they were lumped in with Real, their other two opponents, Ludogorets and Basel, seem straightforward enough.
There is a feeling that this sharp, quick-passing team forged by Brendan Rodgers might go a very long way. “I believe we have a strong squad, we are in a position to perform well without calling ourselves favourites,” Coutinho said. “Raheem Sterling will be one of the stars in Europe. He is having a very good time and is in very good shape. I don’t have the speed to catch him.”
Last season, Liverpool enjoyed one significant advantage over their Premier League rivals – they were not weighed down by European football and exited both domestic cup competitions reasonably early. That advantage has gone. Not a problem, said Coutinho: “The big Champions League matches will make the players feel even more motivated, and the more big matches we have the more motivated we will feel.”
Having won his place back in the Brazil squad, he is entitled to feel motivated and perhaps reflect that the World Cup was quite a good one to miss. “Watching what happened in the summer has made me more motivated, I am desperate to stay in,” he said. “It is the dream of every Brazilian footballer, but the most difficult part comes now – staying in the squad until the next World Cup.”