2014-15 was a season to forget for Liverpool, considering the highs of 2013-14. The departure of Steven Gerrard has left a large void that has to be filled during the summer. Hopefully, the transfers will address this and the much needed overhaul of the squad that was shambolic for the better part of the season.
However, for the upcoming season, Arsenal’s victory in the 2014-15 FA Cup means that the slot passes on to the next best positioned team after 5th in the Premier League as Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League group stages. For traditional powerhouses across the top 5 leagues, the teams don’t really take the Europa League seriously.
For Liverpool F.C. in the upcoming 2015-16 season? No, they should definitely NOT take it lightly.
Firstly, the Europa League is an official European trophy. Maybe not as prestigious as the Champions League, but an official European trophy nonetheless. If won, it does give you the opportunity to play in the UEFA Super cup next season, another official trophy, against the Champions League winners. And the Europa League winners, who might be considered the underdogs in this duel, still possess the potential to beat the Champions League winners. Atletico Madrid (Europa) beat Chelsea (Champions League) in the Super Cup 4-1 as recently as 2012.
Why do managers of the powerhouses take the Europa League for granted? One reason would be the prestige attached to it, since it is considered to be not as important as the Champions League or the domestic league in England. The strongest XI of a squad rarely plays in the group stages. Even in the FA Cup, top English teams never field their best XI unless they are in the 5th round or drawn up against opponents of similar caliber. Another reason is the congestion of fixtures. UEFA want televising of their matches. Europa League is played on Thursday, which means a team involved would have to have its match on Saturday or Monday. It does not allow the manager to rest his main players as well as he would want.
For the group stages and up to the round of 16, the opposition, even for Liverpool’s standards, is weaker and if the right tactics are employed, can be easily disposed off if you have strong squad rotation or young players playing. Liverpool’s owners from FSG approach football like they do with baseball. They approach it with the ‘moneyball’ strategy. In short, buy young players with a lot of potential and then either let them flourish in the team or sell them for a better sum. Taking the Europa League, as well as the League cup, a bit more seriously would benefit the youngsters in the Liverpool squad.
Having squad rotations and youth players playing would provide invaluable match experience, something that just won’t be given during the course of the campaign until the last 2-3 matches, when the final league position may be more or less decided. The Europa League and the League Cup together, could easily give these players 10 or 12 matches in a season to develop and boost their confidence & skills that just won’t be attained as quickly in a relatively stress-free training environment. Keeping some of the regular starting XI on the bench or the “in and out” squad players in the game along with these youngsters, this would just enhance their confidence, knowing that there is someone there to guide them on the field.
Playing these matches with more intensity to reach further in the competition not only provides more match day experience, but it allows youth to shine. There can’t be a more apt example than the emergence of Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane. Some strong Europa League performances allowed him to earn a call up to the main squad. He took the chance. He played an important role for Tottenham and finished the season with an impressive tally of 31 goals, including 21 Premier League goals. There might be that next talented defender, midfielder or forward in Liverpool’s ranks as well. The match day experiences that the so-called fringe competitions provide is what’s needed to let them shine.
Another incentive for the Europa League is a spot in next season’s Champions League to the competition winner. Sevilla, who finished 5th in Spain, qualified for the Champions League through the Europa League. That seems incentive enough if it is obvious that CL qualification cannot be attained through the league. After the round of 16, from the quarter finals onwards, Liverpool can thereby consider mixing youth and their strongest XI to find a more effective squad for upcoming seasons and work to retain those players & help develop them.
This is why Liverpool F.C. should really reconsider the importance it attaches to the Europa League. The competition is a prestigious one and provides numerous benefits.
– Gaurav Rao