Champions League failure will hurt Liverpool - but a Europa League place can still benefit the Reds

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Europe's secondary competition is derided in some quarters, but it makes perfect sense for the Reds as they look to rebuild after a dreadful season

Jurgen Klopp would never admit it publicly, but Liverpool’s hopes of Champions League qualification this season are all but over.

With nine games remaining, the Reds need a perfect end to their own campaign, as well as an almost unprecedented collapse from at least two of the sides above them, if they are to take their place at Europe’s top table next term.

That would have seemed unimaginable when the season started amid a wave of optimism back in August, but a testing autumn and a miserable winter mean the skies over Anfield have changed dramatically. Try finding optimism now.

Liverpool currently sit eighth in the Premier League, 12 points off both Newcastle and Manchester United, who occupy third and fourth place. Even Europa League qualification, at this point, looks a tall order - the Reds are nine points behind fifth-placed Tottenham, and have surprise packages Aston Villa and Brighton in front of them too.

To some fans, that last point may not be seen as a bad thing. It may seem like a damning indictment of modern football and its ‘need it now’ culture, but there are plenty who would prefer Liverpool to miss out on European football entirely if they are unable to qualify for the Champions League. 

The idea of Thursday nights in the Europa League - or worse still, the recently-formed Europa Conference League - is unpalatable for some, but from the club’s perspective there are clear benefits to qualifying for Europe’s consolation competition…

  1. How would Liverpool qualify?

    How would Liverpool qualify?

    Finishing fifth would guarantee qualification for the Europa League next term, while sixth place is also likely to secure a spot, depending on who wins the FA Cup.

    Manchester City, of course, are favourites for that, but are already pretty much guaranteed a Champions League place next season. Fellow semi-finalists Manchester United, too, will almost certainly qualify for either the Champions League or Europa League via their league position.

    That means that only if Championship side Sheffield United won the FA Cup, or if Brighton were to win it and also finish outside the top six in the Premier League, would sixth place be insufficient for a Europa League spot next season. 

    In that instance, sixth would qualify for the Europa Conference League. Otherwise, that place will go to the seventh-placed team in the Premier League.

  2. The money side
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    The money side

    Of course, the main headlines when discussing Champions League qualification, beyond the obvious prestige angle, tend to revolve around money. Namely, a quite significant loss of revenue for any club that misses out.

    Liverpool have benefited from Champions League money for the past six seasons, earning an estimated £500 million ($624m) in that period. Last season, when they made their way all the way to the final, they earned more than £100m ($117m), and even though they were dumped out in the last 16 by Real Madrid this season, the expectation is that the Reds will pocket more than £65m ($81m) in prize money and TV revenue.

    The Europa League, of course, offers far less in terms of financial incentive, but it is worth noting that last year’s winners, Eintracht Frankfurt, earned an estimated £33.5m ($42m) from their Europa League run, while semi-finalists West Ham pocketed around £28m ($35m).

    There is also the money made from hosting additional home matches, of which there would be six if a team was to make it to the semi-finals. That, at a conservative estimate, would be worth an extra £12m ($15m) to Liverpool.

    That’s far less than would be earned in the Champions League, of course, and a season in the Europa Conference League would be even less lucrative, with last season’s winners, Roma, only collecting around £17m ($21m) from that competition.

    But it is still more than a season without European football of any kind. Liverpool are far from paupers, but as they seek to rebuild after a quite dramatic fall from grace, they are hardly in a position to be turning their nose up at that kind of cash, either.

  3. Another route back to the Champions League
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    Another route back to the Champions League

    Another key point to make about the Europa League is it offers clubs a direct route back into the Champions League.

    The winners qualify automatically for the group stage, a fact which heavily benefited Frankfurt, who finished 11th in the Bundesliga last season and would have missed out on Europe entirely were it not for their Thursday night escapades. As it happened, the Germans made it to the last 16 of this year’s Champions League, where they were beaten by Napoli.

    With competition at the top of the Premier League fiercer than ever - Arsenal’s rise this season has caught many by surprise, while Newcastle are only likely to get stronger under their Saudi Arabian ownership - finishing in the top four is far from a guarantee for a club like Liverpool. They could, in theory, have a decent season next year and still finish fifth.

    It makes sense, then, to give yourself a back-up option if you can - and that means embracing, and attacking, the Europa League.

  4. Making more history

    Making more history

    And hey, let’s address another issue here; competing for, or potentially winning, a European trophy is something that no club should be scoffing at, especially one with as rich a continental history as Liverpool’s.

    The Reds have won the competition three times, albeit in its former guise as the UEFA Cup. It was the first European trophy they ever won back in 1973, and nobody who was in Monchengladbach that night, or indeed in Bruges three years later or in Dortmund in 2001, would ever accept the idea that it is a trophy that doesn’t matter.

    Of course the Champions League is where the glamour is at, and that will always be the case, but this season’s Europa League has featured Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona, Juventus, Roma and Ajax, among others. Recent winners include Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Villarreal, clubs who are regulars in the Champions League.

    Sure, games against Qarabag or Pyunik or Bodo Glimt may not exactly set the pulse racing, but big ties are there if you can navigate your way through the group stage. Manchester United and Barcelona fought out an epic battle in the last 16 this season, while Rangers saw off both Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig en route to last season’s final.

    In terms of prestige, such games matter. Liverpool have suffered badly this season, the club’s pride damaged by its domestic drop off and its Real Madrid hiding. They want to come again, and they believe they can, and playing as many high-pressure, high-profile games as possible can only help that process, particularly as Klopp looks to make significant changes to the side which conquered Europe previously.

    For supporters, too, it’s a no-brainer. This is a fanbase brought up on tales of European football, of continental glory. Why would they want to be without that prospect, and those trips, next season?

  5. The downsides
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    The downsides

    Of course, there are potential negatives to a season (or more) in the Europa League or Conference League. 

    A more congested fixture list, for starters. With six group games and then potentially another nine in the knockout stage, any team hoping for a run to the latter stages as well as a strong domestic campaign is going to need a deep and well-rotated squad. Given Liverpool’s issues on that front this season, that has to be a concern.

    The Thursday-Sunday rhythm, too, brings with it problems, with Europa League participants often playing catch-up in the Premier League, playing after their rivals have picked up points on the Saturday. Plenty of teams have seen their league form suffer while juggling a Europa League campaign.

    Liverpool have benefited, on the pitch at least, in the past from a year without European football. In 2013-14, playing once a week, they were able to launch a surprise title challenge under Brendan Rodgers, while in Klopp’s first season, 2016-17, they were able to make the jump from eighth to fourth, securing Champions League qualification on the final day of the campaign. 

    But while Klopp would, one presumes, appreciate having a clearer schedule and a little more time on the training pitch, the pros still far outweigh the cons when it comes to Europa League football. In both a financial and footballing sense, as well as from the perspective of supporters, it’s a no-brainer.

    Perhaps the bigger, more pertinent question is whether this will even be an issue come May. Liverpool's recent form suggests it might not be.