THE millions of pounds of talent, the swaying Kop, the deafening noise, the “This is Anfield” sign. All are trademarks of Liverpool Football Club and enough to intimidate even the most experienced opponent.
Edinson Cavani with Napoli, Eden Hazard with Lille, Angel Di Maria with Benfica and Sergio Aguero with Atletico Madrid have all suffered on European duty at Anfield in recent years.
Hearts really ought to be concerned. Except they aren’t. Achieving parity with Liverpool in performance at Tynecastle last week has increased belief considerably within the Edinburgh club, despite a 1-0 loss on the night. They approach Thursday’s Europa League play-off second leg feeling confident and eager to sample the unique atmosphere of the fabled Merseyside venue on a European night.
For Danny Grainger, the Hearts left-back, this is a unique opportunity, one he grew up dreaming of just 80 miles up the road in Cumbria. The red on Grainger’s bedroom wall at the family farm near Penrith was not adorned with the Liver bird, however. He preferred the red devil of Liverpool’s great north-west rivals, Manchester United. The chance to play at Anfield is something Grainger will relish, and he won’t be walking alone.
“Liverpool have millions of pounds of talent and to walk away disappointed from the first leg is a credit to the boys because of the performance we put in. We’re all looking forward to Anfield now,” said Grainger, speaking exclusively to the Evening News. “I don’t think we have anything to fear and we’ve shown that. We knew we were going to have to score goals down at Anfield to get through. That hasn’t changed. We need to do what we did last week, be disciplined and hopefully take one or two of our chances when they come along.
“It’s a massive stage for anyone to go and play at Anfield on a European night. The atmosphere is going to be amazing down there. It’s going to be nice to be able to say you’ve played in an environment like that. Man United were my team as a kid so there’s a bit of rivalry there. A lot of my friends are Liverpool fans and they’re coming down to watch us. I’m glad the tie is still alive and we know what we have to do.”
Hearts’ aim before last week’s first leg was to stay in the tie, in contrast to the 5-0 defeat suffered 12 months previously against Tottenham Hotspur which rendered the return match in London academic. The margin of a single goal means anything is possible, although Liverpool understandably are strong favourites to progress to the group phase.
Hearts must score in order to level the tie. Realistically, scoring first is vital if Hearts are to have any chance of pulling off the improbable. Going 2-0 down on aggregate would all but kill the tie dead. “Obviously we need to score but I’d say the first goal is crucial,” admitted Grainger. “If we can go down there and get an early goal then you never know what can happen.
“If Liverpool get the first goal then it becomes a much harder game. If we’re concentrated and sensible the way we were in the first leg, then I’m sure the chances will come our way. The fans never shut up from first whistle to last at Tynecastle, they were right behind us when we needed them. Even after Liverpool scored we could still hear our supporters and we’ll need them on Thursday as well.”
Well over 2000 Hearts fans will descend on Anfield to witness their team play at one of British football’s most iconic stadiums. Anfield, like Tynecastle, produces a cacophony of noise on midweek European nights. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” gets its customary airing and the locals take their fanaticism to the limit.
Grainger is confident of coping with all of the above, particularly in light of Hearts’ performance in the first leg. Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Jose Enrique, Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel did not feature at Tynecastle but there still were plenty of recognisable names on the visitors’ team sheet – Charlie Adam, Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina to name but three.
Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, must now decide whether to reinstate any star players for a European tie which is sandwiched between important Premier League encounters with Manchester City and Arsenal. Odds are that he will field a line-up similar to that which played in Edinburgh, one which Hearts troubled on several occasions.
“I’m not surprised we dominated for long periods because we had players who could do that,” added Grainger. “Novikovas, Templeton and players like that can hurt any team. These guys are top players and they can cause problems for big teams. It was good to see that we dominated the ball in the Liverpool half in the first 45 minutes. They probably had more of the ball in the second half but overall we were happy with our performance.
“Ryan McGowan was man of the match last week because he kept the boy (Raheem) Sterling in tow. I don’t remember him getting away from Ryan once. If we are keeping players like that quiet then it goes a long way towards winning you the football match. We’ll have a right good go at it on Thursday.”