It is safe to say Liverpool will not have wanted to see the Europa League again. When they enter the pitch tonight (Thursday 21st September) to face LASK, it will be with the conviction of a side that knows they really should be playing Champions League football. But the hangover from last season’s fifth-place finish could actually fire the Merseyside giants to greater heights this term. While they may not have chosen the Europa League as their path to a European trophy this season, it is a path they’d do well to take.
There is a sense of the full circle about manager Jurgen Klopp finding himself managing in Europe’s secondary competition again. The German reached the final of the tournament in 2015/16, his first season as Liverpool manager. Liverpool lost to Sevilla in the final and have not been back since. They spent 2016/17 outside of European football altogether, having finished eighth in Klopp’s maiden voyage, before reaching the Champions League for the following six seasons.
Their record in the competition during that period has been exceptional. They won the Champions League in 2019 while they reached the final in 2018 and 2022. Last season’s round of 16 exit was a wake-up call though. With the club enduring their worst league season since Klopp’s first campaign in 2015/16, the need for a rebuild was becoming ever clearer.
That rebuild took place this summer. Loyal soldiers like Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho moved on. Players like Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had arguably outlived their usefulness, were allowed to leave too. In their place came the likes of Dominik Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister and Ryan Gravenberch. This is a new-look Liverpool and the Europa League could be the perfect platform for them to gel.
The Premier League offers a harsh glare and constant scrutiny. So too the Champions League. But the Europa League is less closely-followed, at least in the group stages. While Liverpool fans will be watching religiously, far fewer people will draw lasting conclusions for a game away to LASK than they will when Liverpool welcome West Ham United to Anfield on Sunday. The competition has long offered a chance for clubs to rotate their line-ups and try new tactical concepts.
That’s not to say Liverpool should not target the final in Dublin next May. With a refreshed squad and a number of players looking to make an impression on their new employers, the Europa League offers these men a platform to excel. A group containing LASK, Union Saint-Gilloise and Toulouse is certainly one the Merseyside club will expect to get out of. Once that task is done, why not try to go on and win it?
While Klopp will hope to qualify for the Champions League by finishing as high in the league as possible, the Europa does also offer the safety net of a competition place for its winner. The impact of securing a trophy also cannot be discounted. After a trophy-less season, if you discount the Community Shield, Klopp will want to re-establish the winning mentality at Anfield. The Europa League is a great chance to do that, particularly given the tall task of dethroning Manchester City in the Premier League.
The Europa League is unfairly mocked at times. But reaching that 2016 final was the first real sign of prosperity for the Klopp reign. Winning it in 2019 gave Chelsea the platform to win the big one in 2021. Manchester United fans would point to 2017’s triumph as one of the few bright spots of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years. For a club like Liverpool, who has won more European Cups than any other British side, the Europa League will never quite hit the same. But that doesn’t mean winning it wouldn’t be an important milestone as Klopp seeks to take them back to the summit.
Reaching the Europa League final was the start of Klopp’s first great Liverpool era. The ex-Borussia Dortmund manager now seeks to steer them into a second. Could going one better in this competition do it? It certainly couldn’t hurt. Either way, Liverpool will be hoping this is just a one-year stay in the Europa League. But if you’re going to be in it, why not win it?
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