Tuesday night’s Champions League ties see Liverpool travel to Russia to take on Spartak Moscow in their first away game in the competition. It’s a big game in the context of the group having thrown away a lead to draw with Sevilla at home in the first game, and three points are important.
Although the Reds should have little to fear in terms of qualification for the last 16, given that their group is eminently navigable, topping the group should certainly be the aim. And that probably means taking care of business in tricky away trips to the east, in Moscow and in Slovenia.
Indeed, this week’s game comes at a time of increased intensity for the Russian club. Poor league performances along with a UEFA charge for fan issues which saw a flare thrown onto the pitch in their first Champions league group game against Maribor and nearly hit the referee. Their punishment for that is a ban on their supporters for their next away game, something which won’t affect their game against Liverpool this week.
That means no behind closed doors game, which is what some Reds might have been hoping for, but that might actually be a good thing for Jurgen Klopp’s side. No player is used to playing in a totally empty stadium, and it’s just as odd for the away side. It is, of course, a punishment which hurts the home team more than the away team: they don’t get the gate receipts they would have done otherwise, and their fans obviously can’t cheer them on. But it’s also a punishment which lends a different atmosphere to the game, and in the end, that doesn’t help either side. Indeed, it might have perhaps made it more difficult for Liverpool than it might otherwise have been. But it does perhaps raise the fears that Moscow fans might be similarly boisterous this week.
That, in itself, will only serve to lend a better atmosphere for the game. But the next night, Manchester United will also travel to Moscow to play another Moscow clubs, CSKA. That’s another game the English club should win, especially given United’s current form. But the interesting part is what happens to the fans.
On two successive nights, two rival sets of supporters will descend on Moscow, and after the problems at Euro 2016, all eyes will be focused on that – whether that’s a deserved scrutiny or not. Either way, it represents a test of the security forces and might well give us a taste of what to expect at next summer’s World Cup, when plenty of rival fans will be in close proximity.
That’s not to say we’re expecting trouble, and both United and Liverpool fans are used to traveling to watch their team. Indeed, that ‘experience’ is surely a good thing in the context. But it might give us a glimpse of what England fans can expect in Russia.
It also gives the Russian authorities a chance to police competitive games in a more volatile atmosphere than they might have had to encounter at the Confederations Cup in the summer. It will also allow them to see how fans come and go in large numbers in and out of the city on consecutive days.
But there’s always the fear, brought about by the events in Marseille at last year’s European Championships, that English fans abroad will either misbehave or, as was the case last year, find themselves targeted by fans of other teams. The fact that the two teams in question are old enemies Manchester United and Liverpool almost seems to be secondary in this instance, which is a strange thought.
Aside from being a pair of tricky Champions League away trips to Russia for a duo of North West rivals, this is also an opportunity for everyone – tournament organisers, Russian authorities, and fans – to see what happens when two rival clubs come to Moscow on consecutive days.