Following their UEFA Champions League exit, Brendan Rodgers insists Liverpool will take the UEFA Europa League seriously.
After finishing second in the Premier League last season, the Reds returned to the UEFA Champions League this term after a five-year absence. Whilst they were not realistically expected to challenge for a sixth European crown, particularly since Luis Suarez left for Barcelona, they were expected to get past FC Basle and Ludogorets to join Real Madrid in the last 16 of the competition.
However, whilst the Spanish giants have gone on to win all six of their matches in Group B, Liverpool have laboured horribly. It took a stoppage time winner to open their campaign with a 2-1 home win against the Bulgarian minnows, who themselves score a late equaliser to take a point in the return. So after Basle beat the 2005 holders 1-0 back in October, it meant Rodgers’ side needed to beat the Swiss club in the final match in the group on Tuesday night to ensure qualification.
But it was Paulo Sousa’s team who took the lead at Anfield on 25 minutes, and their task looked to get easier when Lazar Markovic was shown a second-half red card for flicking a hand towards Behrang Safari on the hour mark. And although Steven Gerrard – who else? – grabbed a leveller with 10 minutes left on the clock, the home side were unable to force a winner to take them through.
This means the Reds have been eliminated at the first stage of the competition, as they were under Rafael Benitez when they last featured. They must now entertain the idea of playing in the UEFA Europa League, which brings with it the challenge of Thursday night football and, as a consequence, Sunday afternoon Premier League action. Yet this is a tournament they have won three times in the past when it was labelled the UEFA Cup, the last of these successes coming under Gerard Houllier in 2001.
Indeed, the competition has taken on added importance this season as the winners will automatically qualify for the Champions League. Liverpool may even find this their best route back to the elite competition in European football considering their poor domestic form, so it is perhaps no wonder that a downbeat Rodgers declared: “The Europa League is still a very prestigious tournament and hopefully by that stage our performance level will have improved greatly.”
Is Rodgers right to set his sights on winning the Europa League, or should he just focus on a top-four Premier League finish? Have your say in the discussion below.