By Séamus Leonard
The term season-defining is used too frequently in football circles, but for Liverpool, next week’s second leg Europa League clash with Zenit St. Petersburg will determine how the closing months of the club’s season will play out.
Their League Cup run came to an end with a disastrous 3-1 home defeat to Swansea. Any hopes of a FA Cup triumph were dashed with an infamous 3-2 loss at League One side Oldham. And the EPL? Well, whatever chance there was of securing a top-four finish went south after last Monday’s 2-0 reverse at the hands of West Bromwich Albion.
Now attention will turn to racking up enough EPL points to earn another run at the Europa League. But why bother? Liverpool simply does not have the resources to compete on four fronts at the moment, and without a large injection of cash from the owners (Fenway Sports Group) that will not change anytime soon. Also, the club (and many of its fans) has unfortunately adopted the same dismissive view most other English clubs (and media outlets) have regarding the secondary European competition: it’s second best to everything else. More of a nuisance than an honored competition.
Manager Brendan Rodgers mostly used the group stages before Christmas to blood a lot of youngsters and give them a taste of continental action. There was a notable 5-3 win in Switzerland against Young Boys when both Andre Wisdom and Jonjo Shelvey (2) got on the scoresheet. Even so, ultimately qualification for the last 32 was achieved more by accident than by design. A couple of favorable results elsewhere in the group and a last-gasp miss by Udinese in the final group game saw the Reds squeeze through.
To be fair to Rodgers, he put out close to his first choice side in Thursday’s first leg away to Zenit St. Petersburg. And for large periods of the game, the Merseysiders more than held their own. Indeed, had striker Luis Suarez not fluffed two glorious first-half chances then Liverpool may have traveled home with a comfortable lead, rather than a 2-0 deficit.
The game followed a familiar pattern. Liverpool performed well, created chances, spurned them and then paid the price by conceding against the run of play. The result gave more ammunition to those who believe Rodgers isn’t up to the job. In his defense, his side were more than worth a draw, and you can’t really hold him responsible for Suarez having an off night in front of goal.
There have been some magical European nights at Anfield over the years and managing to come from 2-0 behind to qualify for the Round of 16 would certainly rank up there with the best of them, particularly considering the flagging fortunes of the side at the moment.
So, ideally, Rodgers’ team selection for Sunday’s EPL clash with Swansea should reflect where his priorities lie. Does he want to have a proper go at winning the Europa League this season, or would he prefer to qualify for next year’s competition through the league only to go through the motions again?
His decision on the participation of Steven Gerrard will provide the ultimate insight into the manager’s mindset. Gerrard has played every minute of every EPL game so far this season. But expecting the 32-year-old to play four games in the space of 11 days is unrealistic. The England international was anonymous for much of the game in St Petersburg, the heavy pitch hardly conducive to bringing the best out of his ageing limbs. Should Rodgers opt to keep his captain in reserve on Sunday, you can assume that he is very much focused on the European fixture. If, however, Gerrard maintains his fantastic record of EPL appearances, then it will suggest that Rodgers places more value in a relatively meaningless fixture against his former club than what could prove to be a pivotal European fixture.
Here’s hoping the Huyton native warms the bench.