10 March ~ As Liverpool make their way to Portugal for the first leg of their Europa League round of 16 tie at SC Braga, perhaps the question that lingers most is one of priorities. With confidence and momentum at a high following the league win over Manchester United, fans can perhaps be forgiven for seeing Thursday European nights as an unnecessary distraction – particularly as new talisman Luis Suárez is unable to play. Indeed, an oddly circular paradox is created by the notion that the main motivation for going far in the Europa is the opportunity to compete in it again next year.

Birmingham City’s League Cup victory has made the likelihood of the club qualifying via the Premier League ever more remote, and so if they’re to play in Europe at all in 2011-12, lifting the trophy in Dublin in May could be the only way of doing so. But this is not the Champions League, where the financial rewards for simply being there make qualification the utmost priority; the only reason to want to be in the tournament is for the chance of winning a trophy – a trophy that is conversely only seen by some as worthwhile for the qualification place it brings. And around we go.

By rights, however, Liverpool should be sufficiently motivated to win the competition on its own merit. Although at times an unforgiving slog (and a greater disrupter of schedules than the Champions League – just seven of the club’s 29 league games so far this season have taken place on a Saturday), the prize at the end is still a major European honour. Liverpool’s trophy cabinet has remained untroubled since 2006, and in a year that still threatens to see up to four of the current top five come away empty-handed, that should be incentive enough – as should the fact that victory this year would see the club establish an unmatched record of four wins overall (they currently tie with Juventus and Inter).

With Andy Carroll only likely to make the bench, and Suárez ineligible thanks to the quirk of circumstance that saw former club Ajax drop into the same tournament, any potential goal threat may have to come from other sources. One player who could be tipped to shine is Raul Meireles – the side’s most potent recent goalscorer may take heart from the fact that the only league goal in his last season at Porto came against Braga, albeit at home rather than at the uniquely picturesque quarry setting of the Estádio AXA.

That said, in his early flirtation with the European management that eluded him at his first spell in charge, Kenny Dalglish has shown an inclination to treat the away leg of a tie as a hurdle to clear, giving nothing away, rather than an opportunity to settle affairs early. It remains to be seen how well this will work in the long term, but there’s perhaps an irony in the notion that, although the Roy Hodgson era already feels like a bad dream for a happy and rejuvenated fanbase, their best chance of success this year is in a competition the former manager had already shown himself adroit at tackling. Seb Patrick

Comments (10)
Comment by SlavicScouser 2011-03-10 10:54:51

An article not without a point, but given the high probability that the FA Cup will be won by a team qualifying for the Champions League, or indeed if Man City (as favourites) win the Europa League, the chances of 6th place in the Premier League qualifying for Europe is still quite high. There is still a good chance Liverpool can finish higher than 6th anyway if they can keep a good run together and another team slips up. It's odds against, but still very possible.

All in all, I wouldn't say winning the Europa League would represent their best chance. Qualifying from 6th would beat that in my opinion, but of course, it is an important venture for Liverpool this season. The games against Sparta Prague were played without much effort, (in neither team selection nor tactics), but it will be interesting to see how Dalglish will play it tonight. More of the same, or a bit more respect to the opposition.

Comment by gankus 2011-03-10 11:29:04

SlavicScouser, if the FA cup is won by a team qualifying for the Champions League, the runners up get qualification into the Europa League rather than it then going on to the team 6th in the Premierleague.

So what this essentially boils down to is that, barring an Arsenal v Man City FA cup final, which is obviously a pretty likely scenario, only 5th in the league will qualify for the Europa League.

Another one of UEFA's little quirks, like Andy Carroll not being allowed to wear the no 9 shirt tonight as Torres has already worn it this season

Comment by reddybrek 2011-03-10 13:40:59

Winning this trophy should be the number 1 priority of Liverpools season at this point.

Is there a possiblity of even the team in 5th not being high enough to qualify? This scenario:

Liverpool finish 6th and triumph in Europa League and qualify as winners.

Birmingham qualify as league cup winnners.

A team outside top 6 win FA Cup (unlikely but look at league cup final).

Only 3 English teams are allowed so something will have to give unless uefa shoe-horn in an additional English team similair to when Liverpool qualified for Champions League as holders 05/06.

If Uefa insist on 3 English teams we could see some serious squabbling, the Europa League revenue isnt to be sniffed at.....

Comment by PRB 2011-03-10 13:42:19

"Another one of UEFA's little quirks, like Andy Carroll not being allowed to wear the no 9 shirt tonight as Torres has already worn it this season"

One of the most idiotic rules of all time. But then again, you mentioned UEFA so it didn't come as much shock.

I actually found out about it a few weeks ago when ordering a Carroll number 9 shirt off the Liverpool website. The European version informed me due to a UEFA rule he would be wearing some other number. Strange.

Comment by bearlion 2011-03-10 15:55:58

Given it's Liverpool, I'm surprised the rules weren't bent (see also scraping into the CL as holders, Mascherano being registered for 3 clubs in a season)

Comment by MatchdayII 2011-03-10 19:28:49

What exactly was the issue with the Masch transfer? Is the rule not that a player can't be registered to 3 PL teams in the same season. Look at the case of Konchesky it hardly seems fair to deprive a player of football simply due to the mistakes of a previous manager.

Likewise the CL rules may have been changed, but it was a fundamentally stupid over-sight not to include a guaranteed place for a returning champion. The idea of a World Cup without the reigning champions, now a possibility, feels instinctively wrong.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2011-03-10 21:36:15

I don't think the number of Europa league places are limited by country are they? England gets three (to be divvied up between league cup winners, FA Cup winner/finalists and then ultimately league placing) and a potential extra spot through the Fair Play League. Add in another country neutral spot for the winners, plus the potential for all four Champions League teams to drop into the 'minor' competition and there could be 9 English teams in the latter stages in 2012.

Comment by bearlion 2011-03-11 09:50:38

It's a FIFA thing - Mascherano arrived right at the end of the transfer window so had been registered at Corinthians and West Ham. Then he moved to Lpool in the Jan window. Konchesky is on loan at Forest so is still registered at Lpool. Or something.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2011-03-11 11:43:06

Seems I was slightly wrong - if the winner of the Europa league qualifies domestically for the Europa League, then the nation doesn't get an extra spot. They only get an extra spot if the Europa winner hasn't qualified for Europe domestically (ie if Fulham had won last year there would be an extra spot for English clubs as Fulahm didn't qualify through the leagues/cups).

"If the title holder also qualifies for the Europa League through domestic performance

The allocation of Europa League places within the title holder's domestic association remains absolutely unchanged and places are distributed normally amongst all its qualified teams, including the title holder. Once this is done, the title holder is then moved from whichever round they qualified for domestically and are placed into the title holder spot in the group stage. The round for which the title holder had qualified for domestically is therefore left with one place vacant. To compensate, teams from lower qualifying rounds are moved up as required."

Comment by drew_whitworth 2011-03-27 14:07:50

@bearlion... Actually I think the first team into the pot for any competition should be the team who won it the previous year, regardless of rules on qualification. It is a sporting standard - you win a trophy, you should get the right to defend it. This is not quite the same thing as the winners of the World Cup now having to qualify - because they are still in the competition, just at an earlier stage.

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