HOME AND AWAY PETER SIMPSON
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Home and Away: Sorry Brendan, but the Europa League just ain't the same thing

Under-fire Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers is trying to play up Uefa's second-tier competition, but he is failing miserably

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 10:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 10:27pm

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said after his team's Champions League exit: "The Europa League is still a prestigious tournament."

It's certainly a distinguished tournament, even if it is Europe's second-rate competition.

Yes, you do get a chance to go head-to-head against other big-name European teams including the likes of Dynamo Moscow, Inter Milan, Fiorentina, Borussia Moenchengladbach, Napoli, Sparta Prague, Dynamo Kiev and others.

No matter what Rodgers says to dress the Europa League up, Reds fans know you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear

So yes, the Europa League is just dandy - if you are a team like Southampton or West Ham or Swansea on your journey to the next level. Or an Everton and Tottenham still denied a pass into the big boys' club.

But it sure ain't no Champions League. And no matter what Rodgers says to dress the Europa League up, Reds fans know you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Liverpool's shambolic, sheepish exit from the elite competition at the hands of Basel midweek not only goes against the club's ethos, but can only be seen for what it is: a huge failure.

The Merseysiders needed a win to progress into the knock-out stages and "where the competition really begins", as Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho put it.

But they fell woefully short in the 1-1 draw. Rodgers' side offered little tempo or ambition in the first half and only burst into the club's trademark victory-chasing passion after Steve Gerrard's free-kick levelled the game late on.

For Reds and neutral fans alike, the return of Liverpool after a five-year absence was meant to signal the re-emergence of one of the continent's illustrious sides.

When you think of elite European football, you think of Liverpool and epic battles against Roma, Olympiakos, Juventus, Chelsea and Real Madrid.

Generations of Reds fans have been born and bred to believe Champions League football is their birth right.

But the tournament has greatly changed during their hiatus. Those clubs once thought of as mediocre European sides are now capable of playing intelligent, winning football as Liverpool found out in the most painful of circumstances.

Remember the team who last season barged their way back into Europe's royal court as if it was their entitlement? That redoubtable squad of players who caused club chief executive Ian Ayre to proudly declare: "This is our competition!" Well, it is no more.

Liverpool played dull, laboured football devoid of confidence or pattern against an otherwise moribund Basel.

As many argue, the failure to replace Luis Suarez and the injury to Daniel Sturridge has weakened the squad.

But Rodgers and his staff failed to learn from the mistakes made at Tottenham, who were criticised heavily after selling Gareth Bale and replacing him with seven or eight squad players.

While Rodgers needed to beef up his squad for European battles, he foremost needed a prolific forward - a fast-paced, hard-grafting team player - to replace his disgraced Uruguayan goal-machine.

So he chose Mario Balotelli, a known bundle of trouble who has only delivered a £16 million (HK$194.8 million) headache.

And other summer signings have also failed to shine, including Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert.

So you have to wonder just what is going on in the manager's mind. And given the tactics, you have to ask what is going on at the training ground, too?

Champions League football is not an entitlement, even for a pedigree club like Liverpool. You have to have the quality and depth of squad to match the modern competition's high demands.

You have to buy and dynamically train and organise players who turn up, in every sense, on the domestic and continental fronts as often as three times a week, twice a month.

It's a big ask. Yet as is now evident, Rodgers has failed to construct and marshal a squad capable of such demands.

Perhaps the embarrassing early exit is a blessing in disguise. Maybe it will spur Liverpool into making the necessary development, commitment and changes clearly needed.

Who knows, the Reds' domestic form might improve tomorrow with a victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford.

But a loss will see them nine points adrift of a final Champions League spot, and that will almost certainly ask further questions of Rodgers how the hard work of last season has been trashed.

Somehow, he must rally his squad to a fourth-place finish in the EPL or a Europa Cup final victory. It's not just prestige at stake, it's jobs too.