BY the time that you read this, Liverpool Football Club will have begun the new season in earnest.
The club kicks off its 2012/13 season with a two-legged Europa League qualifier against Gomel of Belarus, the first leg of which will already be complete. The Reds secured an away victory, and kept a clean sheet (somehow) ahead of what should be a comfortable victory at Anfield in the second leg.
After dropping out of the Champions League places and ceasing to be part of the, so-called,” big four” in Rafa’s last season in charge, last year was the first time since 1999/2000 that Liverpool had failed to participate European competition of any kind. Had we not defeated Cardiff in the League Cup last February then the coming season would be no different. However, the penalty shoot-out victory has assured a speedy return to European action, albeit second-tier action and via the qualifiers.
The European ties, coupled with the squad just returning from a pre-season tour of the North America and the first team enduring a long summer of international duty, there seems to be little chance of respite for the players, particularly with the Premier League kicking off in a fortnight. A gruelling schedule then, but Brendan Rodgers has said that the early games will give his side an advantage over the other Premier League teams at the beginning of the season, so it may not be as bad as it seems.
Should Liverpool come through the qualifiers, which we all expect them too, and make the group stages, that will mean playing twelve games in total. Should we reach the final of the competition, that will mean playing, in total, an extra twenty-one games in the season, which makes fifty-nine games before factoring in the two domestic cup competitions; a staggering number of games for a squad to play in one season.
Not only that, there are those who are worried about the effect playing Europa League games on a Thursday, followed by Premier League games on the Sunday, will have on the team’s performances and results. Then there are those pundits, reporters and fans, quite in the majority in Britain, (not just Liverpool fans I would venture to add) who simply view the Europa League as a second rate competition, hardly worth bothering about; something which only serves to complicate matters and distract from the real business of the league.
That is certainly one way to look at the competition, however for a club like Liverpool, I do not believe that it is a sensible point of view. Liverpool Football Club is, as Brendan Rodgers rightly points out, an institution; a British footballing institution yes, but every bit a European institution as well. For a club like Liverpool, to remain without European football of any kind for two years running is almost unthinkable. That is why it is important to be back amongst it, albeit in the Europa League.
Apart from England and Italy, all the other European nations take the competition seriously. The Spanish teams have, over the last two or three seasons, been dominant of the competition, with the Germans and the Dutch comprising the tier just below, consistently reaching the last eight. The standard of football in the knock-out stages of the Europa League last season eclipsed much of the football on show in the Champions League and, for me, contained some better sides than those who took part in the group stages of the Champions League (e.g. Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Schalke and Sporting Lisbon).
The Champions League is, of course, the “holy grail” for most fans and more and more so for players, however, a successful Europa League campaign (reaching the last four or winning it), is a great advertisement for the club. It is the next best thing to being in the Champions League. In terms of signing players of a better standard, a high profile run in the Europa League makes the club that much more attractive. Some of the best players in Europe plied their trade in UEFA’s second tournament last year; Falcao, Muniain, Llorente and Huntelaar to name but a few.
It will be very interesting to see exactly how Rodgers approaches Europe. I would like to see almost a B-side in the early rounds. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, I simply mean a side which contains a few older wiser heads and some young players coming through, along with a few fringe players. The likes of Joe Cole, Raheem Sterling, Adam Morgan, Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing, perhaps captained by Jamie Carragher - allowed to develop as a team for certainly the qualifying rounds and possibly even the group stages.
Of course, if and when necessary, some of the more senior players could be drafted in and, should a youngster or fringe player impress, they could earn a call up for the league fixtures. It would be beneficial for all: it would make good use of the squad, it would allow the first eleven to be fresher for the league campaign, it would provide invaluable experience for the youngsters, it would keep the first team back-up match fit and it would allow Rodgers to properly assess everybody in real match conditions.
Whether Rodgers will choose to do something like this remains very much up in the air – he may choose to play more or less a first team as often as he can. However, we’ve seen from the changes he made to his Swansea team for the cup competitions last season that he is not averse to playing almost an entirely different eleven depending on the tournament. He has been at pains to stress the importance of the collective group since his arrival, something which this strategy would seem to fit.
Whatever happens, these games will be Rodgers’ first competitive test as the manager of Liverpool Football Club and, as such, he will want to make sure that the club avoid any potential banana skins by progressing- without much ado – to the Group stages. Once there, where he ranks the Europa League’s importance in terms of the club’s priorities will be up to him.
I would suggest though, that after the Premier League, the Europa League may trump the domestic cups in the manager’s list. It certainly provides a larger revenue. As mentioned above, it’s a good way of attracting talent and we’ve seen how little value that FSG place on winning the domestic cup competitions. Above all, however, integral to the identity of Liverpool Football Club and intertwined in its history is the club’s tradition of European excellence. The Europa League offers Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool a path, albeit the scenic route, back to that glory should they choose to take it.
There are of course many down sides to being in the Europa League, especially having to enter it via the qualifiers. Twenty-one games to reach the final means effectively playing half a season more than most teams, the Thursday/Sunday fixtures can take their toll, we’ll face trips to far flung corners of Europe to take on generally much weaker opposition until the knock-out stages and the prize money is not great. However, overall it is much more of a blessing than a curse in my opinion.
It is immeasurably important for a club like Liverpool to maintain its European profile, we couldn’t afford another season of purely domestic football; two seasons out could have become three and so on, the rot needed to be stopped. To sum up, if we ever want the club to get back to where we all think it should be, we have to embrace competitions such as these and go out and try and win them , as opposed to not really putting in the effort and moaning about extra games and tiredness.
You can catch Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 or on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/