The Reds never got going in European football this season – winning just two out of our eight games and exiting two competitions within the blink of an eye. Next season, Champions League or not, it must be different.
A growing and somewhat unfortunate perception among Premier League teams and supporters is that the Europa League does not matter. It’s simply a passing distraction, one that often proves more trouble than its worth with it Thursday night fixtures and quick turnaround times.
It’s certainly proved too hot to handle for many a Premier League team in recent seasons. Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Stoke City, Swansea City, Newcastle United and more have all seen their domestic form impacted by the pressures of playing so many extra games. So why should we be bothered, when priority number one next season will be getting back into the top four?
First of all, it’s a competition that’s been a happy hunting ground for the Reds over the years. We’ve won it three times in our distinguished history, most recently in 2001, when goals from Markus Babbel, Steven Gerrard, Gary McAllister and Robbie Fowler helped us record an epic 5-4 final victory over Alaves.
It’s also worth pointing out that many teams have enjoyed success balancing the competition with their league games. Chelsea found it easy enough to brush aside all competition on route to lifting the trophy two years ago, with former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez as their coach.
Sevilla have won the competition three times in the last decade and are in the semi-finals again this year, while they’re still in line to finish in the top four of La Liga, behind only Barcelona and the Madrid teams. Their fellow semi-finalists this year also include two teams from Italy – Napoli and Fiorentina – proving that the European elite can handle the pressure of the competition.
There’s even the dangling carrot of a place in the Champions League for the competition’s winners. With the Premier League jam-packed with quality sides working on big budgets, winning a piece of silverware offers an appealing back-up route into Europe’s premier competition.
Like it or not, this is the level we’re at right now – as demonstrated by our less than inspiring performances against Real Madrid and Basel last year. The group stages of the Europa League will offer us a fine opportunity to blood some young players and get them accustomed to being around the first-team squad, while we should have the quality to push on through the latter stages if we approach the competition whole-heartedly.
Ten years on from Istanbul, it’s time for us to be winning European honours again. So rather than moaning about our potential participation in what is still very much a major competition, let’s get behind the team and back them for what is another golden opportunity to win Brendan Rodgers his first trophy.