Brendan Rodgers is confident that Liverpool can atone for their failures in the Champions League by winning the Europa League.
This was never a competition that Rodgers intended Liverpool to enter. However, the manager conceded that, had they been playing in the first half of the season with the panache they have displayed in the last two months, they would still be among the European elite.
“That was the frustration; we had put in two years of hard work to get to the Champions League and when we arrived there we didn’t have the team,” said Rodgers.
Despite realistically only having to finish above Basel to make the knockout phase, a Liverpool side without Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge and with Mario Balotelli hopelessly off form never suggested they could make an impact.
Now, despite playing Besiktas, the leaders of the Turkish Super Lig, there is a buoyancy about Liverpool. On the wall in Anfield’s Trophy Room, where Rodgers was addressing the media on Wednesday, hung a picture of Rafa Benitez, who took a Chelsea side eliminated from the Champions League to win the Europa League and, in doing so, revived the club and his own managerial career. Rodgers would back himself to do something similar. The last time Besiktas came to Anfield, in November 2007, they lost 8-0.
He did not disagree when it was put to him that Liverpool may be where they were under Gérard Houllier in 2001 – a team that could compete for and win the Uefa Cup but one that was not quite ready to go head to head with the European elite.
Now, having lost only one match since early December, and with Sturridge back to lead their attack, there is a bullishness about Liverpool that was never really apparent in the Champions League. The fact that Liverpool could requalify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League final in Warsaw will be an added incentive.
“That is the icing on it,” said Rodgers. “But the initial reaction is wanting to win a trophy and, if we do that and qualify for the Champions League, then so much the better.”
On Saturday evening, Liverpool raised one of the ghosts of last season by beating Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, one of the venues where their assault on the championship foundered.
There was a period in that FA Cup tie where Liverpool kept the ball for almost two minutes, the kind of confidence that underpinned so many of their displays last season.
“People watching us now are seeing the return of the domination we used to have,” said Rodgers. “Even when we were 1-0 down at Crystal Palace there was a feeling we would go on and win the game. That was never the case earlier in the season, it was always a feeling of ‘where is it going to come from?’
“Now we are ticking all the boxes, we are defensively strong, very creative and even more important is the ability to press the ball. It is a far cry from what we were a few months back.”
If one ghost was exorcised on Saturday, another will be at Anfield this evening. Although Rodgers may be right to argue that the departure of Suarez and the injury to Sturridge that cost the striker the whole of Liverpool’s Champions League campaign undermined the start of the season, there was the psychological blow of failing to win the title that spilled over from one campaign to another.
And nothing quite encapsulated that more than Demba Ba’s goal that resulted from Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea. Ba will be leading the Besiktas attack on Thursday night.
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