The Europa League conundrum

Posted by guest on August 23, 2012, 10:27:09 AM

According to most you approach on the subject, Europe's second-tier competition is no longer meaningful. Some feel it lost its luster when it adopted the mock Champions League group stages, others when it dropped the UEFA Cup mantle. The decision to use the competition as a second nibble of the European entremets cannot have helped matters either. It's pretty much official: the Europa League is a trophy barely worth winning.

It wasn't always like this. English sides continually vied for it during the 1970s; Hugo Sanchez and Santillana illuminated for Real Madrid in the mid-1980s; Italian football showed its best qualities - Ronaldo, Crespo, Vialli, Baggio – throughout the 1990s. The tall, slender, silver Coupe UEFA may have been the little brother to the big-eared European Cup, but it was still a respected member of the family; now, chained up in the attic, it's allowed only to see daylight on one solitary May evening before being moved back into the shadows.

It doesn't have to be like this. It wasn't for Liverpool in 1973 or 1976, with both victories – the first against Borussia Moenchengladbach, the second against Club Brugge – providing the perfect platform to the four European Cups that would follow within the next decade, two of which came against their fallen UEFA Cup opponents. It wasn't like this for Liverpool in 2001, the last leg of Gerard Houllier's magnificent treble; how stunning Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion looked as the travelling Kop bounced around upon their golden goal against Alaves, how stunning Istanbul proved to be three years later as Liverpool lifted their fifth European Cup.

Gerard Houllier's claim of Liverpool's 2005 Champions League winning side being his own was optimistic at best and egomaniacal at worst, but he did lay foundations with the UEFA Cup victory of 2001; Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher, Dietmar Hamann and Steven Gerrard all started that final, with all four having a major impact against AC Milan four years later. Not all of that can be attributed to their time in the UEFA Cup, but beating prestigious teams over two legs is a habit hard to shake.

Brendan Rodgers is facing a lot of conundrums in his first season at Anfield, but then, it's a puzzling football club he has taken control of. With Kenny Dalglish sacked for his failure to qualify for the Champions League, Rodgers knows the league must be prioritised. He also knows, however, the mantra that supporters maintain, straight from the mouth of Bill Shankly, etched into the subconscious of all: Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies. It's a tough balance to strike. Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson will not feature, but that should not serve an indication over the commitment to Thursday's game.

"Our main objective is the league, there's no question about that. But certainly when you work at Liverpool, both as a player and a manager, every game is important,” said Rodgers in Wednesday's press conference. “We want to do well. The objective over the next two games is to get through into the group stages.”

It isn't just about a shiny trophy at the end of the season, either. Though his squad is small, and could possibly get smaller with potential departures of Jay Spearing and Charlie Adam, more competitive games would be welcome by Rodgers. It provides more chances for players to adapt to his ideas and system; more chance to play in pressured environments. Rodgers, a strong proponent of mentality, will want to give the likes of Jose Enrique, Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing the experience of featuring in must-win games against some of Europe's brightest sides. It worked well enough for the class of 2001, after all.

Liverpool's trip to Tynecastle may not be a must-win game and Hearts are hardly one of Europe's brightest sides, but it will be atmospheric, intense and difficult. It is a club that, like Liverpool, have suffered from boardroom issues over recent years; it is a club that, like Liverpool, have a point to prove. While Rodgers' side must recover from Saturday's defeat to West Brom, Hearts' rancour resides deeper than that. Just over a year ago, the Scottish side went down 5-0 at home to Tottenham at the same stage of this competition, something neither fans nor personnel will want a repeat of

Rodgers must be prepared for that, so too must the youthful element of his squad. Jack Robinson may feature at left back, while Raheem Sterling will almost certainly be given an opportunity to shine. The home leg against FC Gomel in the previous round was Rodgers' way of introducing Anfield to his style of play with full weaponry on show, but this is a chance for his young guns to experience competitive football going at full tilt. This isn't a pre-season friendly on a baseball field; there will be no polite applause. Sterling will be so close to the Hearts fans, he'll be able to hear their anger, see their contortions and smell the disdain that accompanies their pre-match meal.

Sterling will have experience nearby, however. Reina will retain his place in goal, while Lucas may get another run out as he looks to regain full match fitness. Daniel Agger could start too given his Premier League suspension, which rules him out of Sunday's game against Manchester City.

At this stage of the season, already, it's about boxing clever for Brendan Rodgers. This will be Liverpool's third fixture in this season's Europa League already. Successfully navigate the tie and it becomes at least 10. A run to the final will see them play 19 games in total – that's an extra half-season. It's no wonder people struggle to take the Europa League seriously. But Rodgers is a smart manager, a calculating manager; he knows he must keep Fenway Sports Group happy, as well as the supporters – and that's the one conundrum he's desperate to solve.


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