Ian Herbert: Europa League would be no disaster for Liverpool

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The Independent Online

Steven Gerrard will take some convincing that the Europa League has any merits. He once described its predecessor, the Uefa Cup, as "nothing special, an ugly kid brother compared to the handsome Champions League."

But there might be a silver lining to Liverpool being forced out of the Champions League, a tournament which has earned the club £143m since its inception in 1992-93. The £10m the club would lose out on by failing to make this season's knockout stage pales by comparison with the financial consequences of not qualifying for next season's tournament. The £30m hit they would take by falling outside of the Premier League top four is roughly equivalent to the interest payments on the loans co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett took out to buy the club. The Americans' business plan is predicated on year after year of Champions League participation. A break in that cycle would be cataclysmic.

The pursuit of a domestic top-four place looks like an onerous one, made no easier for manager Rafael Benitez by potentially months of worry about the ongoing fitness of Gerrard and Fernando Torres. It is a season when he is effectively being forced to rebuild the club, establishing a more robust defence while awaiting new midfielder Alberto Aquilani's acclimatisation to the Premier League. What is the value of a distraction from that – a headlong pursuit of the Champions League trophy in the high glare which accompanies the continent's elite tournament, when Liverpool are not going to win it?

They know from their treble winning season of 2000-01 how it feels to lift the Uefa Cup. The line-up for that season's tournament was glittering – Liverpool saw off Barcelona and Roma on the way to arguably the competition's greatest final when they beat Alaves 5-4. This season Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and quite possibly Barcelona could slip out of the Champions League into the junior tournament with Liverpool. Moreover, if Benitez wins it he will at least have ended his club's three year wait for silverware.

Jamie Carragher, who ranks that treble-winning year even above lifting the European Cup in 2005, and who still wears the No 23 shirt because of the banner bearing his name and number which he saw when the cups were displayed from an open-top bus, recalls how missing out on Champions League football in 2000 – they were pipped to third place in the league by Leeds United – "really did prove to be a blessing in disguise." The 2001 final was at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund; this season's is 175 miles north-west in Hamburg. The omens are there.

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