AFTER a season of disappointment, Liverpool are looking to bring back some smiles by winning the UEFA Europa League.
Reds fans would have been hoping for Champions League glory this year, but after a disastrous foray in the group stage, manager Rafa Benitez knows that success in the Europa League is the only way to restore some pride and get the ‘Rafalution’ back on track.
Liverpool were drawn into Group D of the Champions League, alongside Debrecen, Lyon and Fiorentina. Despite a tough selection, Benitez would have been confident of the Reds progressing to the knock-out rounds.
Early warning signs of trouble were present from the off though. An uninspiring 1-0 home win against lowly Debrecen left supporters ruing the lack of cutting edge. Problems worsened in Italy, when Fiorentina comfortably despatched of the Reds with two goals from Stevan Jovetić.
UNHAPPY TIMES: Rafa Benitez looks on a Liverpool flounder against Debrecen and Fiorentina
The drift into stormy waters was confirmed in late October when Lyon managed a smash and grab win at Anfield. The Reds had taken a first half lead, however a lack of concentration let the French side back in the match with 20 minutes to go. Super sub César Delgado then popped in injury time to steal the win, resulting in a stunned silence from the Liverpool faithful.
Benitez shook off the tsunami of complaints stating: “We now must be ready for the next game. I have confidence we have the quality to overcome these problems.” Despite his best wishes, the problems weren’t that easy to shift. The return game in East France saw a near ‘deja-vu’ performance. The Reds once again established a lead but an injury time Lisandro López goal snatched Lyon a point, and left Benitez staring down the barrel; qualification looking now all but impossible.
GAME OVER BOYS: A Ryan Babel goal wasn’t enough as Liverpool conceded a crucial late equaliser against Lyon.
A 1-0 win in Debrecen couldn’t mask another poor performance. The victory proved ultimately fruitless though, as Fiorentina’s win against Lyon slammed the qualification door shut for the Reds. A torturous campaign was finally ended by the Italians, as the ‘Viola’ grabbed an injury-time 2-1 away win, leaving Liverpool fans booing their side’s capitulation.
As one story ends, another one begins. Liverpool’s domestic improvement over the winter months lead many to believe that they could go on and win ‘the League Cup’ of European football.
Their first opposition, Unirea Urziceni, were themselves Champions League cast offs. The minnows from Romania put up a good fight, however they couldn’t match the quality of their group rivals.
Reds fans were left reminiscing of Debrecen as Liverpool scored a narrow 1-0 win over Unirea, leaving it till 83 minutes when David N’Gog stepped up to the mark to save Benitez’s blushes.
With the tie still open, Liverpool travelled to Eastern Europe knowing another humiliating exit was possible. And Benitez and co must have feared the worst when Bruno Fernandes levelled the tie on 19 minutes. The Reds regrouped though, and three goals inside 30 minutes allowed the English side to comfortably – if not convincingly – secure their passage to the Round of 16.
RELIEF: Javier Mascherano’s goal helps send Liverpool through against Unirea Urziceni
Their next opponents will be French side Lille. Liverpool will be confident of a Quarter-Final spot but there’s no doubt this match-up is a potential banana-skin. Lille currently lie fifth in Ligue 1 and are only four points off top spot.
Liverpool have been a Jekyll and Hyde side this year. At times sublime, at others, awful. Europa League silverware is perhaps a bridge too far. They’ll battle hard but with confidence problems and the headache of netting that ‘crucial’ fourth Champions League spot, I feel Rafa’s men have too much on their plate to pick up a European prize.
LIVERPOOL’S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE CAMPAIGN 2009/2010