I am too young to remember the first two occasions when Liverpool won the UEFA Cup in 1973 and 1976, but I well recall that exciting final in 2001, when they finally overcame Spanish side, Alavés 5-4 in extra time. Now, of course, the UEFA Cup is no more and has become the Europa League.
The trophy competed for remains the same, but the fact that the Europa League has a format similar to the Champions League, rather than being a straightforward knock-out contest, has made qualification somewhat of a poisoned chalice where many people are concerned.
On one hand there is the prestige that is gained from playing in Europe, whatever the competition. It is felt by many that a top Premiership side needs to be playing in Europe to attract big names.
On the other, many feel that playing in the Europa League is not worth the hassle. The games start in July, it might not be financially beneficial, injuries to players are risked and some feel that, if a team progresses in the tournament, the relentless schedule can compromise that club’s final Premier League position.
The latter is regarded as particularly important, as this may mean missing out on a top four finish and entry for the following season’s lucrative, prestigious Champions League.
I can see both sides of this argument, and can well imagine how difficult it is for those clubs with small squads who qualify for the Europa League. Squad rotation is not an option, or not much of one, so by the end of the season, such teams would very likely be virtually running on empty.
With regard to Liverpool, my own feeling is that I would rather we qualified for the Europa League with a fifth-place finish this season.
I am sure that Kenny Dalglish will be adding some talented players to the squad this summer (a left-back and a creative midfielder, please Mr Dalglish!), and that then, fully replenished, it will possess enough depth and capacity to cope with the demands of the Champions League’s unfavoured little brother. If nothing else, it would be an opportunity to give promising youngsters who are not yet ready for the first team a chance to play and get some vital European experience.
Even taking the Europa League out of the equation for a moment, if Liverpool have a chance of finishing fifth, then I want them to finish fifth. Pride at what an achievement that would be, considering the season we’ve had, is surely very important to many fans, so that is why I will be desperately hoping we beat Aston Villa on Sunday and that Birmingham can pick up at least a point at White Hart Lane.
As a final thought, how about making the prize for winning the Europa League not just a shiny cup, but entry to the following season’s Champions League? How much would that change people’s views on participation?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.
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