Liverpool may have a pedigree which is the envy of nearly every side on the continent, but even for a side as well versed in European competition as the Reds, Thursday night offers up a unique experience as Anfield prepares to welcome the new kids on the block.
Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala visit Merseyside in the Europa League as one of the most fascinating stories of recent years. Virtual unknowns on the European scene just a couple of years ago – the club was only formed in 1991 – Anzhi now boast household names such as coach Guus Hiddink, Christopher Samba, Lassana Diarra, Yuri Zhirkov and, most eye-catchingly, former Barcelona and Inter Milan star Samuel Eto’o as billionaire owner Suleyman Kerimov flexes his considerable financial muscle.
Russian football has been on an upward curve for some time (helped by the relative success of the national side and winning the right to host the 2018 World Cup) but nobody has had a quicker ascent than Anzhi. Bar a couple of years of struggle in the Russian Premier League at the turn of the millennium, the club has barely registered beyond its own confines but now they are the talk of Europe as the owner goes about putting the club on the map.
Kerimov, who made his fortune from potash (mined salt) and gold, has made Eto’o the highest paid player in the world and gives his players the type of luxury that even footballers aren’t accustomed to. He lets them live and train in Moscow, which is roughly 1,250 miles away from the Dynamo Stadium where they play their home games.
Although a principal reason for that is security – Makhachkala is notorious for gang violence – it is also done in a bid to attract players to a country that just ten years ago could only dream of the influx of star names that have rocked up at the Dynamo.
Anzhi were only taken over in January 2011, but this slightly bizarre set-up is paying dividends. They are currently top of their domestic league after 12 games and looking good to complete a fairytale story by winning the top division for the first time in their history.
The trip to Anfield is another significant step for the club. Liverpool are relative European paupers when compared to their heyday (as if they could afford to buy Eto’o), but their name still resonates around the world and Anzhi will view the scalp of Liverpool as hugely significant.
If you were tempted by the 21/10 on an away win, then I really couldn’t blame you. The draw is 12/5 and Liverpool are 6/5 favourites, but at that price you can’t be having Brendan Rodgers’ side.
As interesting and novel as this match is, Liverpool have the far more pressing matter of a Merseyside derby on Sunday lunchtime and the trip to Goodison Park takes precedence over almost anything else in the context of a Liverpool season.
It means Rodgers will be making a raft of changes once again, with Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel and Pepe Reina among the regular first teamers certain not to be involved.
As such, a settled and confident Anzhi side who have lost just once in 21 matches in all competitions this season have to be the bet. I’ve always been of the opinion that Hiddink is a slightly overrated coach, but he is a wily old fox and he should have the number of Rodgers, who is a novice at this level.
Anzhi have only let in one goal in eight Europa League games – in a 1-1 away draw at Udinese – and the 21/10 looks rather big for them to beat a side with just one home win in seven this season, not to mention last year’s poor record.
Punters registering with bwin today can receive a free £20 bet with their first deposit and placing this on Anzhi to secure a famous win at Anfield would return £61 if successful.
The only note of caution is that Liverpool have played better than that suggests and were the superior side in the 3-2 loss to Udinese in their last Group H game, bar the first 20 minutes of the second half that proved so costly.
So if you’re looking for a safety net, Anzhi are still odds against at 6/5 in the draw no bet market (meaning your stake is returned if the spoils are shared) and that looks good to me.