The necessity to qualify for the group stage of the 2010-11 Europa League meant that Liverpool’s pre-season plans had to be rescheduled and the team found itself in competitive action before the end of July only eighteen days after the World Cup final had taken place in South Africa. Roy Hodgson’s matchday squad for the game against Rabotnički in Skopje included starts for David Amoo and Martin Kelly with Stephen Darby, Daniel Ayala, Jonjo Shelvey, Nathan Eccleston, Thomas Ince and Lauri Dalla Valle all taking a place on the substitutes’ bench. Another younger player, David N’Gog, scored the two goals that beat the Macedonians and he was on target again at Anfield a week later as the club comfortably progressed to the play-off round where old adversaries from 1976 in Trabzonspor blocked their passage to the group stage.
A tedious match at Anfield was decided by Ryan Babel’s goal shortly before the interval. In Turkey a week later an early home goal levelled the aggregate score and that was the way it stayed until the final few minutes when Glen Johnson’s cross led to an own goal and Dirk Kuyt scored a late winner after Dani Pacheco’s shot had been parried by the Turkish goalkeeper.
The home-and-away league saw Liverpool in Group K with one previous European opponent (Steaua Bucharest) and two new adversaries (FC Utrecht and SSC Napoli). A comfortable home win against the Romanians was followed by the first of three away draws (in Holland). The goalless draw in Naples was not pretty to watch but on Merseyside the Italians succumbed to Steven Gerrard’s second-half hat-trick after the home team had trailed at the interval. A draw in Bucharest ensured that Liverpool would top the group but an Anfield crowd of nearly 38,000 had to endure another miserable goalless draw against Utrecht, a match for which Martin Skrtel was named as captain in the absence of both Gerrard and Carragher.
After New Year … and with a new manager in charge ... Sparta Prague became the club’s sixth European opponent of the season. A late header from Dirk Kuyt in front of the Kop was the only goal of the Last 32 tie. Portugal’s Braga were next but again Liverpool failed to score in the away leg. Braga defended with composure on Merseyside and the Reds were out. It had not been a memorable campaign. Only 16 goals were scored in 14 matches, five of which ended scoreless. If there was a positive, it was that several of the squad’s younger players got a taste of what it was like to be involved in a competitive European match, including 17-year-old Conor Coady in Prague. But only the home games with Steaua and Napoli provided any real excitement. At the other end of the experience scale, Jamie Carragher took his total of competitive European appearances for Liverpool to a staggering one hundred and thirty-nine.
Even the mercurial managerial talents of Kenny Daglish could not bring about a high enough final league position or an F.A. cup win that would ensure European qualification for the 2011-12 season. So the club missed out for the first time since 1999. Kenny’s leadership did, however, end a run of five years without a trophy when the Football League cup was won in 2012 after the sort of tense penalty shoot-out with which the club had become so familiar over the years.
There had been another change of manager by the time Liverpool’s party headed for Belarus in the first week of August, 2012. It was as new an experience for incoming manager Brendan Rodgers as it was for some of the younger players he included in his match-day squad, one of whom (17-year-old Raheem Sterling) was introduced midway through the first half because of an injury to Joe Cole. Stewart Downing’s thunderous left-foot strike gave Liverpool a slender advantage to take back to England and a week later FC Gomel were comfortably beaten again to send the team through to the play-off round of the Europa League and an Anglo-Scottish clash with Heart of Midlothian. With the emphasis still on youth (the average age of Liverpool’s starting eleven in Edinburgh was under twenty-five) 18-year-old forward Adam Morgan appeared in a competitive Liverpool match for the first time but it was home defender Andrew Webster who decided the match when he was unable to get out of the way of Martin Kelly’s dangerous cross and sliced the ball into his own net. Hearts equalised that unfortunate own-goal at Anfield but a thrilling run and shot from Luis Suarez squeezed Liverpool through to the group stage after a narrow 2-1 aggregate victory.
Draws for the group stages of European competitions are usually looked at with interest by supporters of the participating clubs. In the Champions League clubs can play against the same opponents quite regularly. This is less likely in the Europa League with its larger entry (193 in 2012-13 compared to 76 in the Champions League) and Liverpool found themselves in Group A with three opponents they had never faced before competitively … Young Boys of Bern, Udinese Calcio and Anzhi Makhachkala. Even though the trip to Russia would throw up some logistical problems, the draw could certainly have been worse in terms of distance to travel and quality of opposition.
The Swiss club was seen as the weakest of the four and Liverpool set down an early marker on Matchday One by going to Bern and winning a hugely entertaining game 5-3. But that early advantage was balanced by Udinese then coming to Merseyside and winning 3-2. The two matches with Anzhi were tight with each club winning its home fixture by a single goal. A win in the return with Bern would have ensured qualification to the knock-out stage but despite taking the lead twice the Reds were thwarted by conceding a late goal and that meant that progress now rested on the final group matches, with Liverpool knowing that a win in Italy would see them through. That win duly arrived thanks to Jordan Henderson’s first goal of the season and Anzhi’s slightly better goal-difference saw them pip Young Boys for second place after both clubs, like group-winners Liverpool, finished on ten points from the six matches.
A quick return to Russia was probably not on anyone’s wish-list at Anfield given the range of opposition available at the Last 32 stage. But it did give defender Martin Skrtel a brief reunion with the club he had left to join Liverpool five years earlier. Zenit Saint Petersburg had won the UEFA cup in that year and were considered to be amongst the favourites to lift the same trophy again, even if it now had a different name. Poor finishing and sloppy defending saw Liverpool return to England with a two-goal deficit. A passionate home crowd at Anfield tried to lift the players to another famous comeback victory but it was not to be. A dreadful error by the usually reliable Jamie Carragher, playing for Liverpool in Europe for the 150th time, turned a very difficult task into an almost impossible one. Yet a Luis Suarez free-kick and Joe Allen’s first Liverpool goal had Liverpool ahead on the night at the interval. A majestic free-kick from Suarez with half an hour to play raised hopes again but the crucial fourth goal just would not come. Losing on the ‘away goals rule’ was a sad way to exit the tournament but nearly a quarter of a million spectators had seen the six home matches (giving a very healthy average of over 41,000) and that proved that failing to qualify for either of UEFA’s two competitions in 2013-14 would hit the club financially as well as it missing out on the prestige that comes with participation in either the Champions League or the Europa League.
Copyright - Chris Wood ([email protected]