The shame and horror of Heysel will never be expunged, but the 16-year yearning is over. Liverpool's exile from Europe's premier competition ends at home to the Portuguese club Boavista tonight with their manager, Gérard Houllier, keen to emulate the incendiary impact made by Leeds United last season.
Houllier has studied the records of first-time entrants to the Champions' League and found that few, including Manchester United and Arsenal, have made significant inroads. Leeds proved an exception, blazing a trail from the qualifying rounds to the semi-finals. Now the Frenchman is eager for Liverpool to adopt the same, uninhibited approach to a group which also includes Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Kiev.
"Leeds looked extremely buoyant and full of energy as well as strong and determined," Houllier said. "They played freely and without expectancy. They just said: 'Let's have a go'. We have to learn from that. They made the most of their home fixtures. They also had some luck when they beat Milan because of a last-minute goalkeeping mistake – we'd like a bit of that – which gave them a boost after losing 4-0 in the first game in Barcelona."
Liverpool, however, have a record and a reputation in Europe which means there is no possibility of opponents under-estimating them as some of Leeds' rivals may have done. According to Houllier, people expect a lot from his side because they won the Uefa Cup, but there is also the small matter of the four European Cups they brought back to Anfield under the management of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan respectively. As Fagan's squad embarked for Brussels in late May of 1985, hoping to lift the trophy for a fifth time in nine seasons, anyone suggesting Anfield would not stage another match in the tournament until 2001 would probably have been ruled out of the final against Juventus pending psychiatric reports.
But the mindless thuggery that cost the lives of 39 Italian supporters before the match brought Liverpool a European ban that was not lifted until 1991. Since then they have enjoyed strong runs in the lesser cups, while all the time craving a return to the blue-riband event.
Things have changed beyond recognition during their absence. When Bill Shankly first led Liverpool into the European Cup, away to KR Reykjavik in 1964, the club's inexperience, by no means untypical, was manifested in their travel arrangements: bus to Manchester airport (which got lost en route); plane to Prestwick in Scotland; bus to Renfrew; and finally, after a five-hour wait, flight to Iceland.
The real difference, of course, is in the format. When they first conquered Europe, Liverpool contested a mere eight games against a modest clutch of clubs in Crusaders, Trabzonspor, St-Etienne and FC Zurich before beating Borussia Mönchengladbach. This time, in what Houllier terms "a very open group", they must negotiate six matches just to earn the right to play the same number in the second phase.
Unlike last season, when Roma, Barcelona and Porto were among their victims over two legs, they can forget about aggregate scores or away goals counting double, at least until the quarter-finals. "You've still got to try to win at home and then take something away," said Houllier, "but the fact that it's a league means you can take some risks." After Saturday's sobering defeat by Aston Villa, he is unlikely to be too adventurous in team selection or tactics. Michael Owen will surely start, while if Steven Gerrard plays for the fourth time in 12 days it will probably be in central midfield rather than on the right. Emile Heskey is a slight doubt because of illness, which could let in Jari Litmanen, a player acquired with such occasions in mind.
Boavista, traditionally the poor relations in Oporto, arrive as their country's first champions from outside the triumvirate of Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Porto since 1946. Jaime Pacheco's side, liberally sprinkled with Brazilians and products of their youth academy, must also contend with Liverpool's rich European heritage, all the previous five Portuguese visitors having been vanquished.
Liverpool (4-4-2; probable): Dudek; Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Riise; Barmby, Gerrard, Hamann, Murphy; Owen, Heskey.
Boavista (1-3-4-2; probable): Ricardo; Rui Oscar; Paulo Turra, Pedro Emanuel, Erivan; Petit, Goulart, Bosingwa, Sanchez; Duda, Silva.
Referee: K Vassaras (Greece).Reuse content