Some just finished work early and rushed home in front of the TV for a 5pm kick off.
What they saw was another Europa League game that featured a much-changed Liverpool team, lots of youngsters in the starting XI and a game that was distinctly lacking in entertainment and goalmouth action – a game that Liverpool lost 1-0.
On the ever reliable message boards and post-match phone-ins, the usual suspects are making their voices heard, moaning at Rodgers for having taken such a young and inexperienced side to Russia, seemingly without much of a chance of winning. These are the same fans, of course, that would have been the first to moan if Luis Suarez had started the game, limped off injured after ten minutes and missed an away fixture at Chelsea on Sunday afternoon.
The cries that are emerging ask why the club placed such importance on qualifying for the Europa League in the first place, if weakened teams were going to be sent to tricky games such as Anzhi. To an extent, it’s a fair question – has the Europa League really been worth the fuss? Was there any point in striving to qualify for the competition if first choice teams weren’t going to be selected in every game – doesn’t that mean the competition isn’t being taken seriously?
Actually, when you look at the bigger picture, the Europa League has already been valuable for Rodgers and Liverpool, even with two games to go and qualification from the group still uncertain. I think it’s been important for a number of reasons.
First though, we have to recognise that fielding teams loaded with young players does not mean that Rodgers doesn’t take the competition seriously. The reality of Brendan Rodgers’ hand at the moment, the reality of his job as a whole, is that his squad is very thin, and the players that make up his second string just don’t have the same experience and calibre of the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. If Manchester City want to rest Aguero or Tevez, they select Balotelli. If United want to rest Rooney or Van Persie, they select Hernandez. To give Luis Suarez a rest, Rodgers has to select 18 year old Adam Morgan, simply because his only other viable option would be another 18 year old, Samid Yesil. Rodgers would love to pick a ‘second string’ full of confident, established stars, but the reality is that he has picked predominantly young players not out of a lack of respect, but simply because his squad depth is so thin.
Even with that in mind though, even the most cynical fan has to acknowledge that the youngsters that have played have largely done very well. Raheem Sterling made his first team breakthrough in the Europa League qualifiers, and is now a regular in the starting line up. Andre Wisdom impressed away at Young Boys and has established himself in the first team as a result. Conor Coady and John Flanagan both impressed during a very difficult assignment away in Russia, which will only add to their experience. Without the Europa League games, none of these young players would have gained the valuable exposure and understanding that has – in the case of Sterling and Wisdom – made them firm fixtures in the first team already. They may well have broken through eventually, but there’s no doubt that having the Europa League games under their belt has accelerated their development.
Another key reason why the Europa League campaign has been so important is that these extra games have given the new manager additional games, and time on the pitch, to not only look at young players but also to implement his ideas and encourage the team to play the way he wants to play. Liverpool have already played eight Europa League games this season, and the best way for a new manager such as Rodgers to get his ideas across is in a match situation. A manager does not implement his style and his philosophy overnight, and for all of the hours on the training field and in front of the white board at Melwood, you simply can’t replicate the match situation. Without the extra game time from the Europa League campaign, the team would be a lot further behind in its development.
A final reason why the Europa League is still relevant – and why attempting to qualify again next season is still a priority – is that Liverpool Football Club should always be striving to play in Europe. Some of the most famous nights in the club’s history have been in European fixtures, and if we can make it out of the group stages over the next few weeks there’s nothing to say that the current campaign can’t generate some more. As a fan, to those who say it’s a pointless competition given the squad rotation, I’d far rather be in the competition and mixing the squad up in the group stages than out of Europe altogether and focusing on the League Cup.
With two games to go, it’s still touch and go as to whether Liverpool will qualify and make it through to the knockout stages of the Europa League. However, even if they get knocked out, there are still enough positives to have taken from this season’s experience to more than justify the effort needed to qualify. Sometimes, in football as in life, focusing on the bigger picture and seeing the longer-term benefits of short-term decisions is key.
Find me on twitter @rossco1981
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