Liverpool's 1-0 win over Hearts in the Europa League may not have been another famous European night to go down in Anfield folklore - but it did show that, if he continues to get the balance of youth and experience right, Brendan Rodgers may find the competition to be more of a help than the hindrance many portray it as.
There is no doubt that most clubs, particularly those that are used to competing regularly in the Champions League, are indifferent to the Europa League and treat it with a certain degree of impiety; it is an annoying obligation that often impedes domestic progress and lacks the significant financial reward that its bigger brother offers. But that does not mean that, if managed properly, the competition cannot be beneficial - particularly as Liverpool look to adapt to the rigorous demands of Brendan Rodgers' possession-based system. Rodgers himself will get his first taste of continental competition as a manager and will surely relish the chance to test his system against different styles of play from all across Europe.
Clearly the Premier League will take precedence over all other competitions, with a significant improvement in the club's league form and challenging for a top four finish Rodgers' main objective for the season. The Europa League, though, will offer fringe players and youngsters the opportunity to play competitive football and try and convince Rodgers that they are worthy of consideration for a more regular first-team place, without the pressure and risk of a league game. It also gives the manager the chance to experiment with certain things - like he did against Hearts when he brought Stewart Downing on at left-back (insert your own 'in the changing room' gag here) - without the usual repercussions if it doesn't work out.
There is no doubt that most clubs, particularly those that are used to competing regularly in the Champions League, are indifferent to the Europa League and treat it with a certain degree of impiety.
17-year-old winger Raheem Sterling, who earned rave reviews in pre-season, was given his first senior start for the Reds and, along with young left-back Jack Robinson, who played for an hour, was Liverpool's best performer. Whilst their precocious talent needs to be carefully nurtured and expectations need to be kept in check, these are two extremely gifted young players who have the opportunity to gain valuable experience at their own pace and not be relied on too early in their careers. Other youth players, such as Suso, the Spanish midfielder who impressed for his country at this summer's U19 tournament, and Adam Morgan, the Scouse striker who has been prolific at reserve and youth team level, may also be given game time as the competition progresses.
Then you consider the likes of John Flanagan, Sebastian Coates, Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson, all of whom are in their late teens or early twenties and are at that stage of their careers where they need regular football to continue their development or risk stagnating. In an ideal world, perhaps they would be loaned out for a season or two, but Liverpool lack the strength and depth in their squad to allow any of them to leave unless replacements are brought in, so the Europa League is the perfect solution for this particular conundrum. Let them get some experience in Europe and see how they progress.
The last time Liverpool competed in the Europa League was under the tumultuous reign of Roy Hodgson, and the teams they put consisted of the likes of Paul Konchesky, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Christian Poulsen, Ryan Babel, David Ngog and Milan Jovanovic, so fans are understandably still not particularly enthused to be back in the competition. The squad is much leaner now, however, and whilst there are players such as Charlie Adam, Joe Cole and Andy Carroll, who Rodgers may wish to sell, there is no longer the surplus of mediocrity that was indicative of an aimless transfer policy that has plagued us over recent years. 6 of the 11 players that started against Hearts were 21 or younger, and if Rodgers continues with a similar policy at least until the knockout stages then it should have little impact on Liverpool's league campaign.
The likes of John Flanagan, Sebastian Coates, Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson, all of whom are in their late teens or early twenties and are at that stage of their careers where they need regular football to continue their development or risk stagnating.
The financial incentive, whilst not as prosperous as competing in the Champions League, should not be overlooked either. Whilst the club that wins the competition only receives around £5m in prize money from UEFA (nearly a tenth of what the winner of the Champions League gets), the added income from match day revenue - if Liverpool were to reach the final they would have played nine home games in the competition - would also provide a decent boost to the club's finances. With FSG looking for the club to become as self-sufficient as possible, a good run in Europe would provide more funds for Rodgers as he looks to rebuild the squad to his liking.
Success in the Europa League could never satisfy those who yearn for Champions League football to return to Anfield. After establishing themselves as one of the major forces on the continent under Rafa Benitez, Liverpool now find themselves on the peripheries of European competition; forced to travel to the outskirts of Europe to face teams whose name sounds like the noise you make when you gargle with mouthwash. Fans are fully entitled to be ambivalent towards the second tier of European competition when a club like Liverpool, with all their prestige and history with Ol' Big Ears, deserve to be back amongst the elite.
Still, a trip to Amsterdam next May for the Europa League final would be the perfect way to cap off what will hopefully be a successful season for Brendan and the boys.
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