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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How serious to take the UEFA is certainly a conundrum.
Any Liverpool fan, player or manager should know that it is expected that the team competes in both the league and in Europe. Rodgers ability to manage both is certainly questionable so he should “practice” with the UEFA before we make the step up to consistent CL football.
It will also help our young squad immensely if they get that experience of travelling to far flung places to play teams they’re not used to and come away with a result.
There’s also the prestige thing if we get to the final or win it. It would certainly send a signal around Europe that were coming back and let prospective players that we win shit.
Finally, we may just have to accept that the Europa league is our level at the minute and until we can prove we can handle this comp the CL may just be beyond us.
Having said all this there is defo and an arguement to be made for solely concentrating on the league.
As I said at the top, Liverpool fans et al expect to compete in the league and in Europe.
As long as we manage to avoid the European heavyweights such as Ludogorets, Basle and Besiktas we’ll have a decent shot at it.
If it was a simple as you make out I’d be all over it. It’s not though.
If after your 15th game in the comp you lose in Basel, then you get nothing.
I think we’ve got far more chance of making the top 4 than winning this. It’s a tough competition. There’s far better teams than Villa in it. Better teams than Boro who but for a whisker should have knocked us out the League Cup.
On the other hand, I like your optimism.
Unless Ive missed FSG showing some humility and genuine leadership, Brendan Rodgers is still our manager. Ergo any idea of success in Europe, or success at home while still in Europe, is a pipedream, whether e take it seriously or not.
Can’t fault any of the logic in this article and I agree with everything in it.
Competing in Europe is something that we need to get used to big time, the lack of experience and the big mentality is not there yet, this season the team choked in the big games, not sure if it is the young squad, tactics or whatever but practice makes perfect.
We do have the best team on paper – studge, firmino & coutinho, milner, hendo, can and everyone else so there is every chance that we should progress to at least the semi finals because if we win it, we have a free ticket to the Champions League where we belong.
The europa league isn’t a burden and the players should relish the opportunity to win some silverware. A trophy and the ticket to the UCL, top 4 finish and a strong cup run would be a successful season.
I’m with you in a big way. It’s now a perfectly cromulant way in to the CL. What is more… coefficient is important for ranking purposes… and the increased “global” exposure (ok it is probably incremental to th PL….but nevertheless). I get a smidgen worried when I hear the majority of the TAW fraternity being so single-minded about the league. For sure it is priority one… but like you Robbie G, i see room to compete actively in both when the time is right.
Excellent article and a sensible argument.
If we are afraid of the Europa League, what business do we have in the Champions League? Too many Liverpool fans want the club to be champions of Europe without supporting the club competing in Europe. It’s very strange when you think about it.
Until we have gotten better, I think we should aim for top 5 in the league and winners of the EL. If we keep doing that, we will be in Champions League, anyway.
The bitters have the same squinted deluded optimism. And they have a fraction of our wealth. We don’t have the depth to play for a 5- 8th finish in the league and compete in europa (lower case).
The mancs find this stuff hilarious. They will get bored in a few seasons though when it is well and truly the norm. We are the Spurs of Merseyside.
‘Then there’s a credibility thing. Being a winner in Europe raises stock in the world game.’
You’re sound Rob, but just no. No one who helps us win the title in the next 5 years signs for us because we looked a serious outfit in the latter stages of the 2016 Europa League. If ‘looking good in the Europa League’ verges towards being the new ‘we need champions league football’ we’ll be subconsciously lowering our standards again. Sevilla have won back to back Uefa cups twice in a 9 year span and didn’t do much of anything in the champions league or la liga between those times.
Plus, Rodgers and our best players have proven themselves the best Liverpool at chaining league form together since 1990. They’ve also gone out in the first knockout stage of the Europa twice in disappointing fashion. We should play to our strengths.
(That said if we’re somehow in the quarters/semis/final of it next season I’ll obviously be partying like it’s 2001. Just don’t see it.)
If we ever want to be regular contenders for the league and consistently in Europe, we have to get used to playing 2 important matches a week. It makes zero sense to not take the Europa League seriously. Taking risks in the group stage is fine but any other club worth its salt can compete on all fronts.
Binning this off as a distraction is amateur and reserved for clubs that historically finish between 15th and 6th year on year.
Everyone needs to start thinking bigger manager, players, fans – we have a big squad now so rotation has to be integrated into our playing strategy. LFC exists to win trophies and have big European nights – smirking at Europe after last seasons debacle in the CL is exactly how we’ll struggle to compete again. Win a bit and then win some more – winning is a habit that can be hard to shake, just like mediocrity.
And fuck me- these CAPTCHA codes are impossible!!
Bogdan (or Ward)
There’s a team of squad players that could/should easily be able to manage the group stage, possibly some early knock outs without impacting the league.
But we can’t win games that matter!!
Good read that, Rob.
I’m pretty much of the same opinion, there’s a lot more positives for having a proper go in the UEFA Cup than there is challenging for the top 4 (and probably finishing fifth).
I don’t think it’s defeatism to argue that there are four other, more resourceful teams, above us in the league (and another 1 or 2 chasing fourth besides us) and that we should consider squad rotation post Christmas In favour of the UEFA Cup.
I’d rather win the UEFA Cup and finish fifth than finish top 4 and get knocked out of Europe in the 2nd round or quarters. We win some silverware, which is far more attractive and moral boosting than finishing fourth in the league.
And if English teams continue to struggle in Europe, there may only be a top3 to chase in the league.