IMAGINE there’s this cup. Liverpool FC can go in for it. Liverpool will be the richest club in the competition (at the very least until the last 32 when the third-placed teams in the Champions League groups tumble into it). We’ll have the most valuable squad, by some distance. We’ll face no team better than the current Tottenham team or Borussia Dortmund. It’s got a mini-league qualifying competition comprising six games between September and December then there will be only 32 teams left in it.
The group negotiated, Liverpool will have to get past four teams, over two legs, to get to the final in St Jakob Park, Basel, and none are very likely to be much better — on paper at least — than the Reds. Get this. The best bit. The winners get to qualify for the Champions League. And get their hands on a beautiful-looking trophy that Liverpool have lifted three times, in 1973, 1976 and 2001.
There’s that route, or there’s trying to finish ahead of four teams that are much richer — and currently better — than Liverpool, over the course of 38 games in the Premier League.
What’s easier to prepare for? A group stage that allows for slips before four two-leg ties, nicely spread out, with no games closer than a week apart, or the 38-game marathon with some games coming at a rate of two per week at times ?
Of course, one really bad day at the office in any one of those two-legged ties and the game’s up in the knock-out stages. The 38-game ordeal at least provides the illusion of there being time to recover a poor phase. Get your act together over the four ties though — be solid, don’t lose cheaply — and they’re easily navigable.
To achieve a top-four placing — Liverpool are fifth favourites to do so, an 11-4 shot, according to bookies — over the 38-game season will probably require a 73-74 point haul. Likely to be comprised of about 23 wins and a number of draws. To get to the cup competition final, as few as three wins and a couple of a draws can see you through the group phase, followed by about four or five more victories in the knock-out stages. Sounds like a lot less effort. Worth keeping fresh and focused for.
A bit of a mad paradigm shift this, I know, but why not make winning the Europa League/UEFA Cup (we’re 16-1 if you fancy a flutter) the number one priority? Yeah, we want to win the league n’ all. Fine. We’ve got the first half of the season to find out if that’s a realistic project or a pipe dream. The great thing about ‘the UEFA’ (I’m sticking with the old money) is that in its group phase it’s a pile of shit, and it can be breezed through using only a rag tag bunch of youth teamers and squad fringers.
The real business starts during the knock out stage in the middle of February. There’s a case — well, this is the first time anyone’s ever made it — for getting the lads on the beach, so to speak, for the duration of the Xmas and January period. Rest bodies all over the show. Get them freshened up and primed, for the big one against Villarreal, Fiorentina or Napoli. So what if we’ve got a big league game coming up three days after a testing Thursday night abroad. Give some of the squad players a go in the league. Keep the main lads fresh for the second leg.
A bit mad? Yes, OK, and it won’t happen, but it’s worth thinking about. In logical terms, the UEFA is easier to win than the League Cup or the FA Cup. Because you face off with four Champions League teams that are — in theory at least — comprised of much stronger squads than Liverpool’s. Those sides will of course ‘rotate’ those squads for the domestic cups, but they do so rarely at the business end of the competition.
Another factor — being good in Europe is a good habit to get into. It helps you be good in Europe in the future, for one. The Rafa Benitez-inspired Champions League wins of 2004-2005 owed no small part to the graft put in on far-flung fields during UEFA and European campaigns of the Houllier era.
Being good in Europe is good for tactical discipline. It teaches teams to be more patient, more concentrated, and frankly, better at defending. Then there’s a credibility thing. Being a winner in Europe raises stock in the world game. Respect accrues from it, and potential transfer targets sit up and take notice. On the world stage, the UEFA may not be the Champions League, or a national title, but it is the very next best thing you can win after those two.
Modern squads, replete with chaps from all over the globe, consist of egos who want to get noticed. Europe does notice what happens in the UEFA. More so than if we win the odd derby or get to the League Cup final. In the UK we still tend towards a pariochalism that isn’t as prevalent elsewhere.
So, the recipe for progress, for Champions League qualification, if nothing else, is this: by all means take the league campaign seriously. Go for the big prize. But — in doing so — don’t accidentally go cheaply out of the UEFA in the group stages. Then be prepared by December time to be re-aligning goals for the season, and seriously considering whether or not the much maligned Europa League might be the better bet than kidding yourself that you’re just one 10-match winning sequence away from getting back in the top four.
You with me? Here’s to the big aways in Bilbao and Bordeaux next February.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda
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