By Harold Heckle
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MADRID, Spain _ Real Madrid and Liverpool travel away from home looking to take control of Group B in the Champions League by securing second wins.
Star-studded Madrid seems the favourite to do so, having scored five goals in the competition to rival Ludogorets Razgrad’s one, while Liverpool visits a solid Basel coached by a tactically astute Paulo Sousa.
Here are some things to watch:
MADRID’S FIREPOWER: Madrid travelled on Tuesday to Bulgaria looking to tighten its grip on the group after routing Basel 5-1 in the opener.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti flew out with the forward firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos.
Pepe is fit and included, however Sami Khedira and Fabio Coentrao are not, although the club has not issued a statement detailing if the Portugal defender is injured.
Madrid has good memories of Bulgaria, having come away with a 1-0 win against Levski Sofia in the 1980 European Cup. The reigning champion’s improving form has seen it rack up three consecutive La Liga wins after faltering with two defeats in early games.
STURRIDGE RETURNS: Liverpool has endured a slow start to the season both domestically and in Europe. It relied on a last-minute penalty from captain Steven Gerrard to beat Champions League newcomer Ludogorets 2-1 in its opening group match at Anfield, and a 1-1 draw on Saturday against Everton in the Merseyside derby has left it languishing in 14th in the English Premier League after six games.
But Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers hopes striker Daniel Sturridge can return to the squad for Wednesday’s encounter away to Basel in Switzerland, and help return Liverpool to form, after hurting his thigh on international duty with England at the beginning of September.
“He wasn’t far away for Everton, but he certainly wasn’t fit enough to be on the bench,” Rodgers said. “It helps to have that pace. Daniel is obviously a top talent, whatever part of the game he comes into. And he’s not far away from being back playing.”
HOPEFUL LUDOGORETS: Bulgarian fans are excited at the prospect of seeing Madrid’s multimillion-dollar team but disappointed that they will have to travel 335 kilometres (210 miles) west to the Vasil Levski Stadium in Sofia, as their 6,000-seater Ludogorets Arena does not meet UEFA standards.
This will be Ludogorets’ second match against Spanish opposition, having lost to Valencia in last season’s Europa League round of 16. Fans are buoyed by the spirited opener against Liverpool that was lost only 2-1 through an injury-time penalty.
Although the team has won only nine from 19 matches in all competitions _ only one out of its past six _ the recent appointment of youth academy director Georgi Dermendzhiev is providing a boost to players. The squad benefits from an extra insight into the Spanish powerhouse provided by fitness coaches Javier Ramos and Sergio Marty.
“We know Madrid’s weaknesses, but sometimes that doesn’t make any difference because they’re capable of scoring two goals from two chances,” Ramos said.
BASEL’S IMPREGNABILITY: Basel brings an outstanding Champions League record against English clubs into its match with Liverpool.
The Swiss champion has never lost, home or away, to a team from England in the opening group stage in three campaigns since 2002.
Basel beat Chelsea home and away last season, and eliminated Manchester United three seasons ago by winning a decisive game 2-1 at St. Jakob-Park, having earlier drawn 3-3 at Old Trafford.
Against Liverpool 12 seasons ago, Basel advanced from the group when the teams drew 3-3, after the Swiss held a three-goal lead within 30 minutes. They had earlier drawn 1-1 at Anfield.
In those days, the Champions League format was a second group stage instead of a Round-of-16, and Basel’s home loss against Man United then is its only defeat in the competition to English opposition since the European Cup was rebranded in 1992.
Still, Liverpool trio Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Rickie Lambert have already won at Basel this season. They played in England’s 2-0 win against Switzerland in the opening European Championship qualifying match this month.
GOOD VIBES: Madrid midfielder Bale has good memories of the Vasil Levski, where he scored the goal that gave Wales its 1-0 victory over Bulgaria in a Euro 2012 qualifier.
Ancelotti coached Juventus to 3-1 (4-2 on aggregate) second-round win in the 2000 UEFA Cup, having also participated in wins there as a Roma and AC Milan player. Luka Modric formed part of Croatia’s Under-21 team when it beat Bulgaria 2-1 in Sofia.