Liverpool now begin a Europa League campaign hoping to not need to play that tournament next year. The difficulty associated with finishing in the Top 4, the chance of winning meaningful silverware in Europe and the opportunity at a back door entry into the Champions League means that the Reds need to take this tournament seriously. Here is a look at why this tournament needs to be a priority for Liverpool, and how the Reds should approach Europe’s Mickey Mouse Cup.
Why must Liverpool take the Europa League seriously?
First, performance in the Europa League is also taken into account in determining a cluba s seeding in European competitions. Note that Liverpool are not even ranked in the Top 25 in Europe via the coefficient anymore, hence even a Top 2 finish similar to the 2013-14 season will not prevent Liverpool from receiving a tough draw in the Champions League.
Taking Manchester City as a case in point, 5 seasons of consistent qualification for the Champions League have still not been enough to escape harsh draws on the continent. On the flip side, winning the Europa League twice in three years meant that Atletico Madrid received a much kinder draw in the group stage of the Champions League in 2013-14, despite not having qualified for the competition for 4 previous seasons. Argue with the logic used in determining the coefficient all you want, but a strong performance in Europe will help Liverpool use this a flaweda logic to their advantage.
Secondly, performing well in the Europa League prepares you for the additional load of Champions League fixtures in future. Clubs that qualify directly for the group stages in Europe play approximately the same number of games on their way to the finals, hence any club that can go the distance in Europea s Mickey Mouse cup is well prepared to handle the additional load of games in the Champions League. Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk have shown that small squads can handle the rigour of the Europa League, so Premier League clubs like Liverpool with larger squads should theoretically be at an advantage. Inability to handle the Europa League is surely a mentality issue.
Thirdly, the Europa League does not just provide an immediate entry into the Champions League, but will also prevent qualification for the CL becoming even harder than it already is. Repeated poor performances in Europe from English clubs in the last 3 seasons has put England in serious danger of losing a place in the Champions League; while Europa League performances have helped Italy reduce the difference in coefficient. Let it be put in this way, Liverpool supporters will not want to ever finish 4th in the league only to have to support Manchester United in a Champions League final.
Fourth, Liverpoola s current squad may not be strong enough to finish in the Top 4 this season. Thata s not pessimism, it is reality. Manchester City have flown off the blocks, Arsenal are Arsenal, Chelsea under Jose Mourinho will not be too far off the top no matter what, and Louis van Gaal and Manchester United will either be lucky or good enough to repeat last yeara s 4th place finish. Resting players in Europe last season to keep them fresh for the league was a disastrous move one season ago; so there is no reason to believe that it would work this time around.
Fifth, winning the Europa League will guarantee a much higher prize than winning either of the domestic competitions; while neither offers a place in the Champions League. The maximum the club can earn from either Capital One Cup or the FA Cup will be A?2m, which is far less than the increased prize money that the club will earn from winning the Europa League. Winning domestic cup competitions is nice, but the nature of the competition makes it impossible to plan for more than one match at a time, as compared to the Europa League.
All said and done, winning the Europa League is not easy, but Liverpool will have no chance of winning it if they dona t take it seriously.
Travel cannot be held as an excuse .
Inconvenience in travel is cited by English teams as a frequent excuse for underperforming in the Europa League. However, Liverpoola s travelling arrangements are fairly similar to what it was in the Champions League last season. Liverpool have one trip to make to Eastern Europe this year too (Bulgaria last year, Russia this year), a relatively straightforward journey to southern France (similar to travelling to Madrid). The trip to Kazan will increase the number of miles that the players need to put in, but the travel schedule will be very similar to what it was last season. The players surely had no problem travelling to Razgrad last year, did they?
Secondly, unlike last season, all games immediately after Europa League games will take place in Liverpool (this includes a Merseyside derby). Hence, there will be no additional domestic travel that could possibly take a further toll on the playersa fitness levels.
Third and most importantly, travelling to far flung locations in Europe is a part of European competition. Even top sides in the Champions League will often draw Pot 4 teams based in Eastern Europe from time to time a Barcelona drawing Rubin Kazan in the group stages two seasons in a row. The Europa League is often associated with travel to far flung corners of Europe, (rightly so, due to the location of teams that qualify), but no one has heard of Diego Simeone or Rui Vitoria complaining of needing to travel to Kazakhstan as part of the Champions League. Should Astana do the unthinkable and qualify for the knockout rounds, one of Europea s biggest clubs will need to make the trip to the second coldest capital city in the world, in February. The bottomline is travelling is a part of being in European competitions and hence cannot be used as an excuse.
How do Liverpool approach the Europa League?
All said and done, the Europa League is a tricky competition to approach as putting in the effort to win the competition will seem worth it only if you win it. However, Liverpool have thankfully not needed to play any qualifiers prior to the group stages proper, and unlike with the domestic competitions, do not need to plan on a game by game basis. Anything can happen once you get to the knockout stages, but Brendan Rodgers and the team management have enough time to plan for each of the games in the group stage, while simultaneously keeping League and Cup fixtures in mind.
The away trip to Bordeaux is a must win, no matter the circumstances post the trip to Manchester United. The journey to southern France should be easiest of the three (as compared to Kazan and Sion), and if Liverpool are to pick the away games that they are best placed to win, winning at Bordeaux will be of massive help in taking the pressure off.
Liverpool need to field the strongest teams in the home games. Away teams can find the Anfield crowd hard to handle if Liverpool are on top of their game; however, given that Liverpool have forgotten how to blow away other teams at home in the last 15 months, you would want your best players having to deal with a potentially restless crowd than a few kids who may not be able to handle the pressure at home. As mentioned earlier, all games immediately after Europa League games are in Liverpool, so there is no additional domestic travel that will take away from preparation time for Premier League games soon after.
Squad rotation isna t one of Brendan Rodgersa strengths, but he needs to take a horses for courses approach in juggling European and domestic competitions. For example, Divock Origia s background in the French league may make him a better option up front at Bordeaux, while Danny Ings experience in the lower leagues prior would make him a better fit up front at home to Carlisle United in the Capital One Cup instead. On the other hand, away trips to Kazan are tough a Barcelona in their pomp did not win there in two attempts a so that should make Kolo Toure with his experience in ideal fit in organizing Liverpoola s fairly inexperienced defence as they away to come back with at least 1 point.
The need to develop young players
While Liverpool must not disrespect the competition and their opponents by throwing the kids into Europa League games as if it were some kind of punishment, the Reds have their work cut out in developing young players at the club. Even though Liverpool are seen as a club that is willing to give young players a chance, the Reds actually had to give up 4 places in the Europa League squad because there were no club trained players (Liverpool have already let go of two club trained players this summer) that could be included in the squad submitted to UEFA.
The rule of having at least 4 club trained players also extends to the Champions League, while these rules could also be extended to the Premier League at short notice, at some point in future. Even a flaweda rules need to be followed, so Liverpool cannot afford to put themselves in a position of having their squad size reduced to 21 again the future.
Dangers for Liverpool in the Europa League
The biggest danger that faces Liverpool in their attempt at handling multiple competitions is injuries to full-backs and wingers. Liverpool are fairly well stocked in central defence, midfield and up front (even assuming Daniel Sturridge spends another season in Boston), but do not have much of a choice should anything happen to Nathaniel Clyne, Alberto Moreno or Jordon Ibe.
Lazar Markovic would have been a useful alternative on the wing should anything have happened to Ibe, but poor squad management over the last two years has meant the club may not have realized that there would be no place for him in the squad based on UEFAa s rules until late in the transfer window. What is done is done, and Liverpool need to find an alternative solution should Ibe get injured or lose form besides throwing Henderson or Milner on the right, or finding a new position to Emre Can in.
Morenoa s form may make him dispensable at left back, but Jose Enrique is now a totally unknown quantity due to his lack of playing time. Alternatives to Nathaniel Clyne, on the other hand, are either on loan at Aberdeen, on the bench at Norwich City, or injured since the start of last season. One would hope there is no injury crisis at full back positions, because no one wants to see Emre Can at right back ever again. Supporters and fans will wait and see, but for Rodgers and the players, the time for excuses is over.