The Liverpool players did not quite join in with their supporters, who chanted “We’re the greatest team in Europe and we’re off to Germany” in the immediate aftermath of their exit from the Champions League, but they were singing from the same hymn sheet.
Germany — and in particular Hamburg, the venue for this season’s Europa League final — has become the target for everyone on the club’s staff as they attempt to find silver linings in the storm clouds that have gathered over Anfield since they were demoted to European football’s second tier on Tuesday night.
If Uefa had been desperate for a much-needed marketing boost for the Europa League, which has been criticised for everything from being too overblown to not being lucrative enough, having one of the Continent’s biggest and most glamorous clubs parachuted in should do the trick.
It is a moot point as to who needs the other more. Uefa has a marquee name to boost the profile of a tournament considered a distant second to the Champions League and Liverpool will go into a competition that they have a genuine chance of winning and one in which they have an enviable heritage.
Liverpool have won the Uefa Cup three times — only Inter Milan and Juventus can match their record — and their present crop of players have lined up, almost to a man, looking to banish their Champions League woes by adding to that total.
“The Europa League is another competition for us and we want to win it,” Pepe Reina, the goalkeeper, said. “It also has strong teams and it will be nice to play in it. It’s already become a target.
“It’ll be tough because there are so many good teams involved, but we have to look forward and keep trying to win.”
Among the teams involved are Benfica, Ajax, Valencia, Roma and Villarreal. Just to spice things up even more, Everton are in with a chance of joining them in the last 32, which will also feature Atlético Madrid and could include Bayern Munich and Marseilles should they tumble out of the Champions League. Winning the competition, therefore, would be an achievement in itself and although Liverpool were made the bookmakers’ favourites before they were even in it, their form has been so poor that only a dramatic upturn in performance levels would give them a chance of doing so.
They will also have to overcome the psychological aspect of “slumming it” in European football’s poor relation, something that Javier Mascherano insists will not be a problem, even though the Argentina midfield player acknowledges that the situation facing them is not what they are used to.
“It’s a strange feeling for everyone at the club,” Mascherano said. “We are all so very disappointed. The Champions League is a special competition for us but it’s gone and we must keep going.
“Now we are in another competition and we will do all we can to win it. There will be no problem with motivation. The motivation is simply to play for Liverpool.
“We are representing a top side and we all want to do well for Liverpool. We need to show that we are good players. It’s got nothing to do with motivation. Every year we do our best to qualify for the Champions League. Now we are out in the group stage, but that can happen. Liverpool deserve more from us and that is why we will do our best to win the Europa League.”
The previous time that Liverpool were eliminated from the Champions League in the group stage, in 2002-03, the hangover lasted for several weeks as they failed to win a top-flight game in the ten matches that followed their exit.
Having won only twice in their past 11 matches in all competitions in this campaign, they can ill afford a repeat, which would end their hopes of finishing in the top four and qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
“We know that in the league we have got to start to win again because we are not in the top four,” Mascherano said. “That is strange for everyone at the club and all the supporters. In the last four years we have always been in the top four, sometimes fighting for the title but always fighting to get into the Champions League.”
No matter how strong their desire to live up to past European glories and regardless of how much pain would be caused by a second exit from a Uefa competition, Liverpool’s financial situation demands that the Barclays Premier League must take priority.
While failing to make it to the knockout stages of the Champions League may represent more of a missed opportunity for a cash bonanza than a fiscal disaster, there is little doubt that failure to qualify for next year’s competition would set the alarm bells ringing at Anfield.
Rafael Benítez’s task is to ensure that his players are as aware of this priority as the manager and the club’s hierarchy. The penny appears to have dropped already, with Fábio Aurélio, the left back, admitting that while winning the Europa League is a target, the most important task is recovering their league form.
“We know we’re out of the Champions League for this season, but we have an opportunity in a competition that is new for us,” the Brazilian said. “Now we have to concentrate on that.
“It is an opportunity to win a trophy and that’s how we’ll go into this competition thinking. But first we have to improve in the Premier League — we know we have to do better.”
The missing millions
The conservative financial plan that Liverpool set for themselves each season means that the budgetary shortfall caused by their exit from the Champions League will be more than offset by a good run in the Europa League. Liverpool only budget to make it through to the last 16 of the Champions League, so falling one stage short of that round will cost them in the region of £2.4 million.
• Last season Werder Bremen made £6.1 million from their run to the Uefa Cup final, which they won having been knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage. The competition is more lucrative this season, with the winners expected to earn about £8.5 million in total.
• Liverpool were knocked out by Chelsea in the quarter-finals last season and earned £23.2 million from Uefa, which included about £8 million from their participation in the knockout stages. This time they will receive only £6.4 million for entering the group stage and up to £2.5 million in win and draw bonuses.
2009-10 prize money Champions Europa League League
Champions League winners: £8m.
Europa League winners: £2.65m
Runners-up £4.6m/ £1.77m
Semi-finals £3.6m/ £0.558m
Quarter-finals £2.9m/ £0.319m
Last 16 £2.7m/ £0.27m
From Times Online
- Sobre Torres
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