Liverpool and the Europa League. The Europa League and Liverpool. At first glance, there’s very little to get excited about. UEFA’s second-most prestigious club competition gets treated more like the ugly younger cousin of the Champions League, rather than the high standard of tournament that it actually is.
In England at least, the Europa League struggles to shake off connotations of 4,000 mile round trips to Metalist Kharkiv, disruption to the Premier League schedule due to it’s Thursday night fixtures and even more regrettably – Channel 5 broadcasting.
Yet, with the likes of Jamie Vardy wonder-goals navigating themselves over Simon Mignolet’s head, and the ageing frame of Jermaine Defoe holding off Mamadou Sakho before equalising for Sunderland at Anfield, achieving fourth-place looks a tough ask for The Reds.
Thus, Liverpool should look to take the Europa League more serious than internet-meme creators do, and look to bring the peculiar-shaped yet strangely beautiful trophy back to Merseyside, along with the Champions League place which may be elusive otherwise.
Doing so won’t be easy, with the competition boasting it’s strongest line-up since a crisis of identity lead to it’s name change from the UEFA Cup in 2009. Sevilla should be considered the team to beat, if not in terms of quality then as a result of the fact that the La Liga side have won the trophy four times since 2006, displaying the clear affinity they have with it. Starring roles within their successes have included Dani Alves, Jesus Navas and Carlos Bacca, as well as a pre-umbrella Steve McClaren playing the victim with his 2006 Middlesborough side, who were diminished 4-0 in the final on Europe’s (second) biggest stage.
Jurgen Klopp’s former side, Borussia Dortmund pose another obvious threat to Liverpool’s chances. BVB are the only side in the peripheral vision of Bundesliga leaders Bayern, and average a greedy 67% ball possession in European competition this season. This will mean patience from Liverpool’s eager pressers may be necessary should they meet The Black and Yellows on their route to the final.
Yet in order to do so, Thomas Tuchel’s side will have to overcome FC Porto, who along with the aforementioned Sevilla, represent Champions League quality in the final 32 after finishing third in their UCL group. Shaktar, Valencia, Olympiakos, Galatasaray, a highly-rated Bayer Leverkusen pressing machine and a bruised Manchester United have also fallen from the perceived grace that is the Champions League into the Europa League, increasing not just the strength of the line-up but surely also Liverpool’s intentions to win it. Any Kopite who says they’re not bothered about the competition, should be asked again if the draw conjures Liverpool against Louis Van Gaal’s side.
My deep inner-love of niche footballing side-stories wants me to write about FC Midtjylland and their moneyball fairytale, but I’ll save that for when they actually dump out United in a few weeks time. Instead, allow me to draw your attention to what I believe to be the strongest team left in the Europa League, but one with a considerable weakness.
Napoli, prior to narrowly losing to a Juventus side now consequently on a fifteen-match winning streak, had lead Serie A. The side from Naples are enjoying their best season since the days Maradona donned their famous sky-blue shirts, Mars bar sponsorship and all. Partenopei have scored 22 goals in Europe already this season, averaging a ridiculous 3.67 goals a game and Gonzalo Higuain has found the net 26 times on his own in all competitions. The Argentine’s goal total has already surpassed that of his legendary compatriot in Napoli’s last Serie A winning side of 1990, playing in what is currently one of the strongest sides on the continent.
Their weakness though might just be their strength. Maurizio Sarri’s team are strong enough to win Serie A this year. They will likely put their attention towards ending the club’s 26 year wait for a league title, rather than focussing on the Europa League.
Speaking of 26 year waits for a league title, it’s all well and good looking at the opposition (of which Athletic Bilbao and obviously, Spurs, also deserve a mention) but Liverpool will have to concentrate on themselves as well if they are to be victorious come the final in May. That leaky defence whose holes are seem insufficiently plugged by Simon Mignolet will need to be finely tuned in order to grind out results in away legs with hostile atmospheres. As Rafa Benitez displayed during his Champions League days (or should I say nights?) with Liverpool, stopping the opposition from scoring is just as important as 25-yard half-volley screamers from Luis Garcia up the other end.
Rafa was able to get the very best out of defenders such as Djimi Traore and Steve Finnan in the magical year that was 2005. Jurgen Klopp will need to do the same with the likes of Lovren, Sakho and Moreno if he wants to keep clean sheets in foreign lands. The midfield three will likely need to be anchored more resiliently. Although Milner, Henderson and Can provide a good balance between attack and defence, the more disciplined nature of Lucas Levia may be useful to Klopp’s side in later rounds.
But first, Liverpool must get past FC Augsburg. A hard-working and solid side who have earned a lot of respect as a Bundesliga outfit. Despite not performing to the heights they achieved last season with a best-ever finish of fifth place, the Bavarian side’s motivation on such a big occasion for them will be something the selected Liverpool elevens during the tie should be wary of.
Phillip Lahm, a man who certainly knows his ‘Gotzes from his Gundogans’ when it comes to German football, recently said: “The meeting with Liverpool is an absolute highlight for Augsburg, if not the biggest highlight in their entire club history. Especially the second leg at Anfield.”
This motivation of a big occasion, in addition to an aerial presence which is amongst the best in the Bundesliga and therefore more than capable of causing Liverpool further set-piece agony, will make the German side a more difficult obstacle than most will expect.
Should they overcome them however, momentum will start to build as Liverpool make their journey towards the final in Basel via some much-missed European nights at Anfield.
And if not? Who cares, Europa League’s a load of rubbish anyway, right?