This Sunday, Liverpool play Spurs in a ‘winner takes fifth’ game, that, should Liverpool win, and given their excellent recent home form they should, they’ll secure 5th place and a Europa League spot for next season. The question that some fans are asking is ‘is that a good thing?’ Do Liverpool really want to be in the Europa League?
Harry Redknapp recently stated that he didn’t really care whether or not Spurs get in the competition saying “The Europa League takes an even bigger toll [on league form] than the Champions League. That’s the problem.
“Playing on Thursdays and Sundays every week, it’s not ideal. It’s one of those competitions that teams get into and then they try to get out of. You look at the English teams, and they all seem to have played reserve teams. It’s a million miles away from the Champions League unfortunately.”
I completely disagree. Okay, the Europa League isn’t nearly as prestigious as the Champions League and there's no point in pretending otherwise, but that doesn’t mean there is no merit in it whatsoever. It is sad that many people today seem to feel that if something isn’t the very best it has to be completely worthless. It’s become associated with failure, despite there being some huge clubs playing in it every season.
I’ve always enjoyed the UEFA Cup. For years it was the only European football I got to see Liverpool play in, apart from a couple of seasons of Cup Winners Cup football. I’ve been to some great European nights at Anfield in this competition. The 2001 final against Alaves is one of the most exciting games I’ve ever seen. Liverpool have won the competition three times, no one has won it more, a fact which is proudly displayed on the club’s honours list, so would those fans who believe the Europa League is worthless like the club to remove them from the record books?
I don’t accept the notion that it’s a weak competition. There are plenty of good teams providing tough opposition. Look at the winners of the Europa League/UEFA Cup in the last ten years: Liverpool, Feyenoord, Porto, Valencia, Sevilla (twice), Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and Atletico Madrid. All of those teams wouldn’t look out of place in the Champions League and all have been consistently strong in their domestic leagues, (except Feyenoord, but they’re normally one of the Netherlands’ best teams). Liverpool certainly won’t enter the competition with the mindset of getting out of it as soon as possible; they’ll be in it to win it.
I don’t accept that it’s just a competition for reserve players either. Look at Liverpool’s starting XI for the game against Braga that put Liverpool out of the competition: Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Wilson (the only fit left sided defender at the time), Meireles, Maxi, Cole, Lucas, Kuyt and Carroll. Hardly a reserve team is it? Manchester City put out strong teams (although their reserves are better than most team’s first teamers) too.
Instead of being solely for reserves, the Europa League is a useful competition for giving players valuable experience in a competitive environment. Liverpool’s teams in this season’s Europa League have been a mix of first-teamers, squad players and some youth and that’s the right way to go. Liverpool have enjoyed the benefits of blooding young players in the competition, thus meaning that when they were needed in the league, they were ready. Martin Kelly played the majority of games in this seasons Europa League and has staked his claim to be first choice right-back. Jay Spearing is currently playing well in the first-team (though I’m still unconvinced he’s good enough long-term) and Jonjo Shelvey has racked up an impressive number of first-team appearances this season. These players have benefitted from getting regular starts in the Europa League.
Also, it has to be considered that for all of his managerial experience, Kenny Dalglish doesn’t have much experience of managing in Europe. His experience of managing Liverpool in Europe is the 4 dismal games against Sparta Prague and Braga in this season’s Europa League and that’s it. Other than that, he managed Blackburn in the UEFA Cup, getting knocked out first round against Swedish side Trelleborgs and managing Newcastle in the Champions League where they beat Barcelona but got knocked out in the group stages.
Liverpool’s minimum aim next season is to ensure qualification for the 2012-13 Champions League and once in it, to go as far as possible. It would be valuable for Dalglish to gain more experience in Europe, and in how to balance the squad so they can fight on domestic and European fronts, before entering into Europe’s premier competition. I don’t accept any argument that you can’t do well in the league if you’re in the Europa League. Manchester City have managed to finish in the top 4 this season, so why can’t Liverpool?
Of course, there is the money. Okay, it’s nowhere near the riches that teams playing in the Champions League get, but it’s still an amount of money that, when TV rights are included, could add up to a significant amount of money that could be used to bring one more player into the club. That to me is worth it. Also, having European football, even if it’s not Champions League, is something that can be used to entice signings to the club. The best players want to play in Europe and if Liverpool can offer that, the better the class of player who’ll join for next season.
It’s saddening that some fans of Liverpool think that the Europa League is somehow beneath our club. It is not. Liverpool have to earn their successes like every other team and the fact is that the team hasn’t been good enough to earn a Champions League spot for next season. I’m sure that will change next season but for now Liverpool have to settle for the next best thing, which is not the same as the worst thing.