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