The Europa League, formerly the Uefa Cup, holds fond memories for a lot of Liverpool fans. The image of the great Bill Shankly sitting with the trophy proud as can be is ingrained in the mind after Liverpool lifted it for the first time thanks to a 3-2 aggregate victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1973. Liverpool have gone on to lift the trophy on 2 more occasions since that day firstly in a two legged affair against Club Brugge in 1976 with Bob Paisley guiding us to the victory that night, he then of course led us to 2 consecutive European Cup titles in 1977 and 1978. Finally in more recent times we claimed the trophy under the stewardship of now Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier in an epic thriller against Alaves in Dortmund in 2001. We wrapped up a treble in style that year with a 5-4 victory after extra time over the Spanish side.
In recent times we have enjoyed an absence from the competition participating in the Uefa Champions League instead. We returned to action in the Europa League last season for the first time in the Rafael Benitez era after some poor performances in the Champions League group stages finishing 3rd in a group consisting of Fiorentina, Lyon and Hungarian side Debrecen. I think at the time opinion amongst fans was divided on whether our efforts should have been concentrated on pushing for Champions League qualification through the league or attempting to win this competition. At the end of the season we were unfortunately left with neither as an extra time Diego Forlan goal sent us crashing out of the Europa League semi final and we finished a disappointing 7th in the league only securing re-entry to the competition because of Portsmouth’s inability to obtain a European licence due to their financial troubles.
The 7th place finish meant an early start this season with a trip to Macedonia on the cards on the 29th of July as a David Ngog brace helped us overcome FK Rabotnicki. At that moment many people felt we could use this competition to give some of the younger player’s game time and help them gain extra experience which could aid their development and concentrate on getting a top 4 finish in the league to return to Europe’s biggest stage. We have no more than stumbled through the opening rounds whilst remaining unbeaten the competition was never a top priority.
Now however, after Birmingham’s victory in the League Cup secured them a European spot there is one less place in the league for European qualification and the Europa League has taken on a much greater importance for us and our season may depend on success in it. At the moment we sit in 6th place 6 points behind Spurs who, in 5th, also have a game in hand. It is important to note that should the FA cup winners or runners up not already have European qualification via the league or in Birmingham’s case the League cup then only the team that finishes 5th will progress to the Europa League. This means Liverpool would most likely need to depend on Man City, Birmingham and Man United or Arsenal reaching the final together to gain qualification through our final league position.
Of course that is not to say that Tottenham can’t be caught. They still have to travel to Manchester City, Chelsea and of course Anfield for the penultimate game of the season as well as welcoming North London rivals Arsenal to White Hart Lane so the potential to drop points is there especially as their progression to the last 8 of the Champions League will provide a major distraction. We also need to look over our shoulders with Bolton and Sunderland breathing down our necks slip ups on our part similar to that against Wigan and West Ham could be detrimental. It would be a dangerous game to concentrate solely on the league in the hope that results go our way elsewhere. We need to grab the bull by the horns and go at the Europa League full throttle.
European qualification is essential. As they have showed in the January window Fenway Sports Group are willing to put their hands in their pockets to bring the right player to the club. To attract the sort of player that we need to take us back to the level we want to be at we need European football. Next season we will be looking to regain Champions League qualification and to do that the squad needs major regeneration. The deadwood needs to be shifted and we need to bring in quality replacements to buffer the squad. It will be a difficult job for Damien Commolli to bring players who can cut it at the highest level without the lure of European football so it is vital we gain qualification. It would also be a major confidence boost around the club if we can get our hands on our first major trophy since 2006. That FA Cup victory seems a distant memory and optimism from everyone associated with the club would soar if we can lift that trophy in May.
Do we have the ability to win it? To put it bluntly, Yes. It won’t be easy but thus far we have yet to get out of first gear and have still progressed through the competition unbeaten. The addition of Andy Carroll to the squad as he returns to fitness is also a huge boost because it provides the extra fire power we’ve been missing with David Ngog still raw. There are still some good sides left in the competition such as Manchester City, Porto and Villareal. We will need to up our game and refocus our attentions so we can give this our best effort which begins tonight at Braga. After two disappointing performances against Sparta Prague we will be looking for a bright start and with no Steven Gerrard we need a big performance from Raul Mereleis but we should still be strong enough to come away with a result from Portugal.
With only a couple of months left in the season each game is very important. The change in attitude towards the Europa League from 29th of July to now has been drastic and so it should be. It is essential we don’t make a half cut attempt in the remainder of this competition.