By David Lynch
When Brendan Rodgers accepted the offer to become Liverpool manager, he probably dreamed of a more glamorous first competitive game than that which awaits him against FC Gomel.
The Reds face the Belarusian side on Thursday evening in the first qualifying round of the Europa League and are, of course, strong favourites to progress. However, Rodgers’ team selection for the match could be very telling in regards to whether they wish to do so at all.
Make no mistake, Rodgers’ predecessor Kenny Dalglish lost his job solely due to his failure to secure a top-four finish and, though the club’s owners Fenway Sports Group insist their new man is under no such pressure, it is the premium target over the span of the three-year deal he has been handed. So, if the Northern Irishman wants to exceed expectations and make a true push at this aim in his first year, then Europe’s second tier competition could become something of an unnecessary inconvenience.
|EUROPA LEAGUE EFFECT
|Points per match won in weeks teams did not feature in the Europa League
|Points per match won in weeks teams featured in the Europa League||1.27|
Firstly, Rodgers must compete with an already thin squad which has done little but shrink since his arrival. The exits of Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez alongside the seeming impending sales of Andy Carroll and Alberto Aquilani will do much to lighten a bloated wage bill but what of Liverpool’s strength in depth which so remarkably failed the questions asked of it last season?
Lucas Leiva’s long-term injury absence, Steven Gerrard’s sporadic appearances and Luis Suarez’s suspension had a catastrophic impact on Liverpool’s fortunes even then. What chance that the Reds can stretch to making journeys to the far-flung destinations which the Europa League demands following such an exodus?
Even should a flurry of late arrivals endow Liverpool with the necessary depth, whether there is much point at all to a European run is still arguable.
Boston-based owners FSG are known for their use of statistics in analysing sport and doubtless the financial rewards of the Europa League will have particularly caught their eye. For starters, the prize money awarded for the team who wins the competition is £2.3 million, whilst those who simply make the group stages of its ‘bigger brother’ the Champions League get £3m.
And prize money is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to European football. As all Premier League clubs and those who wish to reach it can attest, television is where all the money is nowadays and continental competition is no different.
Chelsea’s total prize pot for their unlikely run to Champions League glory last season accrued them a staggering cash reward of £57.2m – or just over a Fernando Torres in Roman Abramovich terms. Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid, who beat fellow Spaniards Athletic Bilbao to lift the Europa League, received just £10m for their similarly heroic efforts.
Additional perspective on financial reward versus effort expended can be gained by looking at the fact that Atletico had to play five extra games to seal glory, meaning they ‘won’ just £600,000 per game whilst the Blues received a stunning £5.7m each time they took to the field.
Beyond the financial implications there is also further cause for concern for Rodgers over how his team will recover from European ties which will force them to play on Sundays with just two days' rest after Thursday games.
Recent research from outspoken former Wales national team assistant boss Raymond Verheijen has shown that, on average, teams competing in the Europa League took 1.68 points per match on weeks in which they did not feature in European competition. However, this figure drops to a lowly 1.27 points per match when they are forced to play on the weekend following a midweek European jaunt.
Bizarrely, not since Tottenham reached the then-Uefa Cup in 2007 before going on to finish in a disastrous 11th the following season has this had a tangible effect on league position but the potential for it to do so is clearly there.
|OFF TO A FLYER?
|15/2||Liverpool are 15/2 to beat FC Gomel 3-0 with Paddy Power|
Yet, despite all this evidence, there is a new pressure to consider when discussing the Europa League which perhaps previously did not exist – fans now actually want to be in it. More and more illustrious names are finding themselves in the competition due to the rise of new blood meaning that mouth-watering European ties can still be found at this level and, as a result, games which supporters want to attend.
Few teams’ fans value such matches as much as Liverpool, the most decorated side in European terms in Britain, and continental glory – the first since that legendary night in Istanbul in 2005 - could be just what Rodgers needs to buy himself the patience and time he needs to truly kick his Anfield revolution into gear.
So, on a Thursday night of little note in a small town in Belarus, Rodgers faces a big decision over the future of those famous European Anfield nights. His unerring confidence will doubtless mean he does not believe it is a case of if they will return, but he must now choose when and just how big.
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