How The Europa League Could Salvage This Faltering Season

Uninspiring in defeat to Leicester City. An alarming capitulation against Sunderland. Extra-time heartbreak at West Ham. The early part of this decisive month has been greatly disappointing, but, crucially, it remains a month of great potential as Liverpool head to ‘Anfield South’ to face Manchester City for the chance to lift the season’s first major trophy in the Capital One Cup Final. Before that trip to Wembley, though, Liverpool must first overcome FC Augsburg if they are to book their place in the last-sixteen of the Europa League.

With Liverpool sat some twelve points adrift of the elusive top-four positions, any enduring prospect of Champions League qualification, at least by the conventional means, has been all but shattered for another year. Their next opponents in the Europa League, FC Augsburg, scraped through the Group Stage of the competition courtesy of their superior head-to-head record against FK Partizan, and they are struggling in the Bundesliga too, languishing just two points above the relegation play-off position. Led by a staff more than familiar with such opposition, Liverpool are therefore firm favourites to progress into the Round of 16. A renewed dedication to the Europa League from Jürgen Klopp’s side would then have the potential to salvage a thus far faltering season at Anfield, especially given that the reward on offer to the eventual winner is qualification for the Champions League in the following season.

This is an outlook likely shared by Jürgen Klopp who, on his appointment at Anfield, mocked the snobbish attitude of English football towards the increasingly competitive Europa League.

“The difference is not too big. If you play Champions League, you are playing Wednesday and Saturday. Where is the difference (with Thursday and Sunday)? Is the only benefit that you like the other tournament [Champions League] more?” – Jürgen Klopp, 6th November.

Yet despite the manager’s respect for the Europa League and his impressive record in European competition, Liverpool face a mammoth task in their attempts to win it. Although ranked among the favourites to win the tournament, the three-times winners are joined in the Round of 32 draw by such illustrious clubs as Manchester United, Klopp’s beloved Borussia Dortmund and Serie A front-runners Napoli, as well as Europa League experts Sevilla, who boast unparalleled pedigree in the competition having lifted the trophy a remarkable four times in the last ten years. However, the terrific domestic form of these high-flying sides could have a disastrous impact on their Europa League campaigns during the latter stages. As they each chase titles and European qualification in their respective leagues, their performance levels in the Europa League could understandably suffer, affording those teams who prioritise a total assault on the competition the opportunity to capitalise.

If Liverpool were to do just that, Jürgen Klopp could deliver a similarly enhanced level of preparation to that which bore incredible success for Brendan Rodgers’ side in the Premier League during the 2013/14 campaign. Paired with a sheer desire unmatched by a team whose energies are concentrated elsewhere, such preparation could produce an upset or two and, potentially, deliver Champions League football for next season via the only remaining route.

Whether in Europe or at home, the impacts of any potential cup triumph this early in the Klopp era would be two-fold. Firstly, the lifting of a trophy would provide a significant bonus in terms of recruitment. Not only would the club once again be in a position to offer transfer targets the opportunity to showcase their talents in the Champions League, but such early silverware would also serve, in itself, to embody the enormous potential of Klopp’s Anfield project. Secondly, and perhaps most crucially, the overcoming of recent big-match anxiety to deliver a trophy could subsequently prove to be an invaluable water-shed event; a coming-of-age moment from which this young squad would gain the experience and confidence required in order for it to challenge consistently for further titles in seasons to come. Should February see the hopes of another season prematurely extinguished, restless fans must not begin to doubt the scope for progress, but remember that cup success ought to have been considered a welcome bonus – not an expectation. Bring home a trophy, though, and a season so often written off as transitional would be remembered as one of remarkable success.

This article was first published by Anfield HQFor more, please follow @KopWriter on Twitter.


Wild Celebration and Wembley Qualification

Just four days after the dramatic stoppage-time victory at Carrow Road, Liverpool qualified for the Capital One Cup final on Tuesday night thanks to the perhaps unexpected heroics of Simon Mignolet in the penalty shoot-out. Not only are we on our way to ‘Anfield South’ once more, but those three points against Norwich were crucial in the pursuit of a top four finish, especially after the ‘Old Enemy’ left Merseyside with the spoils in the previous league game.

It must not be forgotten, though, that against Norwich, the defence shipped four goals and that, against Stoke, the attack mustered just two shots on target even after extra time. Whilst the poor display in Tuesday’s second-leg simply cannot have gone unnoticed, any victory for which the reward is a visit to Wembley can understandably have the effect of sweeping away the memory of those 120 unbearable minutes bereft of inspiration and quality. It is therefore important to remember that the recurring issues of recent times have not suddenly vanished.

On the contrary, Liverpool’s frailty at defensive set-pieces and inability to finish chances were once again evident. That may sound peculiar given the five goals scored at Carrow Road, but such a haul was unfortunately not the result of repeatedly incisive Liverpool attacking, but of abysmal defending from the second-worst defence in the Premier League. At the other end of the pitch, Dieumerci Mbokani was able to punish yet more pitiful defending from a corner to finish cleverly among a crowd of flailing defenders, and a stoppage-time free-kick launched from deep within Norwich’s own half inexcusably allowed Sebastian Bassong to equalise.

There was, however, a perhaps more concerning aspect of the performance against Stoke, in that it evoked memories of two other high-pressure occasions: last season’s FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa and the visit of Chelsea during the title-chasing run-in the year before. On Tuesday, the team again displayed the lack of bottle, belief and composure to handle the expectancy on the big occasion just as they had in those two matches. Similarly, Liverpool’s frantic urgency later in the game highlighted once more the absence of a big-game mentality, and of experienced winners who, by injecting a degree of composure, avoid the ill-considered thrusts forward and instead introduce periods of sustained control and measured attack.

Fortunately, Liverpool made it through a tricky cup tie, and all in the absence of arguably the two most talented players in the current squad, Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Perhaps after the Norwich game, conceding felt inevitable and the team believed that they would need to score on the night to progress. Perhaps, had those two been available, the team would have felt more confident in their ability to grab that goal. Interestingly, the club now appears to be looking to the transfer market for solutions at both ends of the pitch with moves for prolific goal-scorer Alex Teixeira and defensive leader Joël Matip, though it remains to be seen whether either or both of these deals will be completed during this window.

Frustrating though it is to struggle in front of goal and concede from a corner, it is arguably cause for optimism to be plagued by such basic problems in that the solutions are equally obvious. Fans will expect a significant improvement in these areas during the second half of the season, and there is undoubtedly a vast amount of work to be done on the training ground, and perhaps even in the transfer market. However, if Jürgen Klopp and his staff can drill this team into even adequately defending a basic set-piece, and follow that remarkable achievement up with the introduction of a clinical finisher, then a season so often written off as transitional could yet offer the possibility not only of progress, but of success.

This article was first published by Empire of the Kop, and later Anfield Index. For more, please follow @KopWriter on Twitter.