Why everyone at Liverpool is starting to take the Europa League very seriously
By Andy Hayes.
As the Lille game was drawing to a close, it was clear that Liverpool Football Club were taking The Europa League seriously. Not just by the players, who have said since November how important it is to try to win a cup, even if it’s in a consolation competition. Not just by the manager, who started his European legacy with a UEFA Cup victory in 2004 and has picked strong teams in all previous games. But by the Liverpool fans, who seemed to finally accept that they were in a competition worth winning.
Before Fernando Torres hit Liverpool’s third against the French side, you could feel the tension around the ground. It was, of course, nowhere near the feeling of dread felt towards the end of games against Chelsea, Barcelona and Arsenal in recent years in the Champions League, where there was a collective huge sigh of relief when even a goal kick was awarded, but when Torres hit his second right at the death, there was relief nonetheless – Liverpool were still there and everyone was happy.
Everyone knows the atmosphere on European nights at Anfield is special and tomorrow night’s return leg against Benfica will no doubt bring the best out of the ‘twelfth man’. When the fans are on song, it is no secret that the team usually is and that will be key to how the game starts. It is slightly strange that this match isn’t a complete sell out and the club is having to use Everton’s familiar ploy of advertising the game on local radio, as the game promises to be a cracker and wouldn’t look out of place as a Champions League quarter final. The ticket prices are obviously an issue as fans are forking out more for this one than any previous Champions League home game.
Benfica are no strangers to successfully defending a first leg lead at Anfield, and a repeat of 2006 is what they will have in mind. They are a much stronger outfit now, but so are Liverpool and from a neutrals point of view it is set up perfectly. Daniel Agger’s away goal is absolutely crucial and Rafael Benitez will no doubt look to play it tight. Although Liverpool need to win, there was enough evidence in the first leg that the Portuguese side can be broken down, so Benitez won’t go all out attack and leave his side vulnerable to the counter attack.
A lot of attention will be on Torres to do the business and no doubt he will be eager to get back on the pitch after his early withdrawal at St.Andrews. Too much has been said of that decision but it was no real surprise. As soon as David N’gog was stripped and ready for action it was more in hope that it wouldn’t be number nine on the board rather than expectation. The young French striker has taken a lot of stick for the chances he missed, but the game did change when he came on and he was unlucky not to be the match winner.
With Liverpool’s chance of claiming anything positive from the season dwindling with every away game, a day out in Hamburg in May could be the silver lining of a very dark cloud. At the start of the season it was never imagined that the Europa League could be the sole achievement (mainly because it was a competition they weren’t even in!) but it really would be a nice end to a truly atrocious season.
When Liverpool were eliminated from the Champions League, there were fans that said they would rather have finished bottom of the group than go into Europa. If the reds overcome an impressive Benfica side and head into the semi finals, the Europa League could be the season’s saviour rather than the embarrassing hindrance that some perceived it would be.
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