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Beauty and the beast: Can Liverpool’s European love affair be reawakened?

The return of the Champions League presents a clear dichotomy for Liverpool, on one hand, you have the strained relationship with UEFA from events in Paris and on the other, the hopes that the competition can ignite the Reds’ season.

The Reds return to European action this week, having gone all the way once again last time around.

It was another breathtaking run that included more big nights at Anfield, but ultimately it ended sourly on a multitude of levels and tarnished what was otherwise the most spectacular season you’re ever likely to see.

What place does that leave us at this time?

Napoli await on Wednesday night. A team and a stadium we know all too well, having made back-to-back trips in 2018 and 2019.

 
 

Broken trust in Paris

Liverpool fans were kept outside the Stade de France for hours as the Champions League final kick-off was delayed (Adam Davy/PA)

The opportunity to hear the famous anthem again and test ourselves against some of Europe’s best ought to fill us with joy and anticipation, but there will no doubt be conflicting emotions heading into the competition for 2022/23.

It remains the greatest competition in club football, a trophy synonymous with the history of Liverpool, but an already fractious relationship between supporters and UEFA was magnified by the shambolic handling of the final in Paris just over three months ago.

There will be plenty who made the trip still nursing emotional scars. Feelings of numbness and despondency will replace the customary butterflies for a European night at Anfield.

Some have not set foot in a stadium since.

The biggest game in the sport is supposed to be an inspiration to millions. Instead, it was the source of huge distress for those treated like animals for having the audacity to like a particular football team.

There was no meaningful apology, there has yet to be any accountability and, instead, the line that UEFA and the Stade de France chose to run was that supporters were to blame.

 

A strained relationship with UEFA

ISTANBUL, TURKEY- AUGUST 25: The UEFA Champions League logo is seen prior to the UEFA Champions League 2022/23 Group Stage Draw at Halic Congress Centre on August 25, 2022 in Istanbul, Turkiye. (Photo by UEFA)

The organisation of the 2022 Champions League final was the latest example in a series of incompetency from European football’s governing body.

The self-serving institution charged with running the football on this continent has proven on numerous occasions that it isn’t fit for purpose, and it has at times felt like an ongoing battle rather than a working relationship.

Supporters have been an afterthought for a long time.

Before a ball was kicked there were frustrations with the way tickets were allocated, with supporters of each team given 19,618 seats for a stadium with a capacity north of 80,000.

It is an ongoing theme which shows no signs of ending, and it appears UEFA are insistent on turning the showpiece into the Superbowl.

PARIS, FRANCE - Saturday, May 28, 2022: Liverpool's Roberto Firmino is embraced by manager Jürgen Klopp at the final whistle during the UEFA Champions League Final game between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid CF at the Stade de France. Real Madrid won 1-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Does the most recent failure take some of the shine away from the competition itself?

Liverpool’s 30-year wait for a league title ended in a Covid-affected setting that felt anticlimactic given the circumstances, and left us feeling short-changed after such a void.

The sixth European Cup was won in the exact circumstances you would want. That mission is completed as far as this era is concerned.

What has followed that have been systematic shortcomings by UEFA which have dismantled the trust that could be placed in the corporation.

As a result of all this, and an ongoing chase of Man United’s 20 titles, there feels a greater desire around the club to see No. 20 lifted before No. 7.

It makes the sluggish start to the season all the more tough to swallow.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, March 8, 2022: Liverpool supporters on the Spion Kop before the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg game between Liverpool FC and FC Internazionale Milano at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

At this moment in time, it is difficult to view a potential return to the Ataturk through the same lens as pre-Paris. That is the unfortunate reality.

UEFA have done little to repair the damage and regain trust in the aftermath and have instead managed to shoot themselves in the foot in other areas.

The draw for the group stage was made less than two weeks before the competition was scheduled to start and gave travelling supporters an extremely narrow window to plan ahead.

 

The road to Istanbul starts here

2JT1C40 Liverpool's Roberto Firmino celebrates with his team-mates after scoring their side's seventh goal of the game during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. Picture date: Saturday August 27, 2022.

That’s enough of the doom and gloom.

The return of European football does, of course, present a huge opportunity for the Reds to take us on another exhilarating journey around the continent and lock horns with the elite.

Liverpool have reached three of the previous five European Cup finals in a remarkable run to which only the Bob Paisley side of the late ’70s and early ’80s can compare.

The group itself has a little bit of everything. Napoli will provide a testing double-header, Ajax bring the glamour and Rangers add a bit of welcome hostility to the mix.

Jurgen Klopp’s unparalleled record in two-legged ties means that we as supporters can begin to dream from the outset. It is part of the beauty that comes with following this club in this competition.

Fabio Carvalho of Liverpool celebrates scoring the winning goal during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. Picture credit should read: Darren Staples / Sportimage

Should Liverpool progress from Group A, fans will be able to plot out the route to the final with the assurance that there isn’t currently another squad on the planet with more know-how in this format.

On the topic of which, it will be the penultimate Champions League campaign under this structure before the ‘Swiss model’ comes into effect for the 2024/25 season.

It is a tricky opener, not helped by Liverpool’s ongoing injury troubles, but they will be looking to make it third time lucky having suffered two defeats in their previous visits to the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona.

Domestically, the season hasn’t opened in the way any of us would’ve pictured it, but this is a team and a club with an enormous affiliation to the competition, and there is every possibility that this could be the start of something again.

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