Liverpool to defend trophy

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The Independent Football

Joy unconfined? Not exactly, not even in the Anfield Road. While most in football, and not just those who will never walk alone, feel Uefa made the right decision when it decided yesterday to allow Liverpool to defend the European Champions Clubs' Cup, there were reservations.

Liverpool themselves were peeved at having to enter at the opening stage, the first qualifying round, with minnows from Malta, the Faroe Islands and Azerbaijan. Their neighbours Everton, and the other English qualifiers, were unhappy at the prospect of a reduction in their Champions' League income of up to £5m. The pot of gold will now be split five ways, not four.

And there remain some in Uefa who feel they were dragooned into bending their own rules by the Football Association's refusal to nominate Liverpool as one of England's original four entrants.

Thus even the FA, whose scheming has succeeded, cannot be entirely content. While Uefa's about-turn suggests that the FA's campaign to increase influence in the corridors of power is bearing fruit, the FA may now owe a few favours. The Premier League, meanwhile, was annoyed that Uefa's largesse did not extend to inviting Manchester City to replace Liverpool in the Uefa Cup.

So the only happy people were ITV and Sky, who now have a fifth English team to cover; the champions of Romania, Poland and Turkey, who were each bumped up a round to accommodate Liverpool's entry; and Hibernian, who were similarly promoted to the first round of the Uefa Cup.

Whoever is paired with Liverpool in the 24 June draw will be ecstatic. With television rights, it will represent the biggest pay-day in their history.

That could be Total Network Solutions, Glentoran or Shelbourne, the champions of Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland respectively. More worryingly for Liverpool it could also be Kairat Almaty, the champions of Kazakhstan.

If Liverpool progress, they could also face long journeys in the second and third qualifying rounds. The latter is an especially problematic scenario as the tie could come just two days before they play CSKA Moscow for the Uefa Super Cup in Monaco on 26 August .

While Liverpool, who will be seeded but will not have "country protection", could be drawn to play Everton, who enter the competition at that stage, they might also be drawn against Shakhtar Donetsk, of Ukraine.

Whoever they meet, Liverpool's players face a very long and demanding season. Their first qualifying tie will take place before the first Ashes cricket Test. For many the season might not end until the World Cup, nearly 12 months later.

The club had planned pre-season tours of Germany and Japan. These are now likely to be cancelled or reduced, though the Champions' League income, should they qualify, will more than compensate.

There may seem a natural justice in allowing Liverpool to defend the trophy but they were not interested in defending the Uefa Cup in 2002, not when the alternative was a Champions' League place. This is about glory, prestige, and cash.

Not all of Liverpool's fans were grateful for the Uefa U-turn. Les Lawson, a spokesman for the Liverpool International Supporters' Club, was angry. "Uefa have done the minimum possible," he said. "They have treated their own champions with contempt. It is a disgrace. To be told they have to start in the first qualifier is wrong and a real kick in the teeth. We are being treated like nobodies."

The former Liverpool captain and assistant manager Phil Thompson was more sanguine. "We are delighted we are back in," he said. "If we have to come in at the first qualifier - so be it. It is still fantastic for every Liverpool fan and the players will not object to extra games."

Dietmar Hamann confirmed this when he said: "It's tremendous news, great for the club. We've still got two or three weeks to prepare, which should be enough to get in shape."

Brian Barwick, the chief executive of the Football Association and a Liverpool fan, said: "We always said that this was an exceptional situation which required an exceptional solution. For the very first time one country has five teams in the Champions' League and we have to be delighted at that."

It will also be the last time. Uefa, finally shutting a stable door they should have closed in 2000 when Real Madrid won the Champions' League but came fifth in La Liga, said that in future the holders would be automatically included in the Champions' League. If, as this time, they had finished outside the top four in a league with four entrants, the fourth-placed team would be shunted down to the Uefa Cup.

Gerrard's lot: a short break, then a long year

Summer, what summer?

25 May Liverpool play their final game of the season, beating Milan in the Champions' League final. (*For Baros, Dudek, Hyypia, Luis Garcia and Riise, their last game was on 8 June in World Cup qualifiers)

27 June Liverpool's pre-season training begins.

12 or 13 July Liverpool play in the Champions' League first qualifying round. The second leg is on 19 or 20 July. The draw is made on 24 June.

27 July Liverpool due to play first game of pre-season tour to Japan against Shimizu S Pulse. Their second game is on 30 July v Kashima Antlers

26 or 27 July First legs of CL second qualifying round, return legs on 2 or 3 Aug.

9 or 10 August First legs of CL third qualifying round, with return legs on 23 or 24 Aug.

13 August Premiership season starts.

362 days and 90 games?

If Steven Gerrard plays in Liverpool's first qualifying game of the new campaign on 12 or 13 July, then keeps his place in an England side which qualifies, then does well at next year's World Cup finals in Germany, he faces nearly a full year of football without a proper holiday. It could even come to an end with the World Cup final on 9 July 2006.

In the unlikely event of Liverpool reaching the final of every competition and England progressing to the World Cup final, the Liverpool captain could end up playing 90 games in 362 days.

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