Simple stroll turns tricky for Liverpool

Context means an awful lot in football.

Before Saturday, Liverpool would have approached Thursday’s Europa League playoff first leg away to Heart of Midlothian (live, FOX Soccer, 2:30 p.m. ET), with the sense of it as a chore to be performed, the third step on a possible 17-game trudge to a final in Amsterdam next May.

Few paid their third qualifying round tie against Gomel of Belarus much attention and a final preliminary against the team deemed third best in Scotland, even in the absence of Rangers might have slipped by.

But a shambolic 3-0 defeat to West Bromwich Albion on the opening weekend of the Premier League season has changed all that. Thursday’s game suddenly comes under intense scrutiny: are Liverpool adapting to Brendan Rodgers’s methods? Can his possession-based approach really energize a club desperately scrabbling to recapture past glories?

That it is essentially seen as a sub-plot in the greater drama of the Premier League says much for the modern status of the Europa League, the successor to the old UEFA Cup.

When Liverpool first won the tournament in 1973, it was their first European trophy; a great triumph that marked the beginning of a glorious run of success that only ended with Heysel and the ban on English clubs in 1985. These days, the Europa League is less welcomed, at least among fans of English clubs. It’s common for English fans to mock the tournament for being bloated and overlong, and Premier League managers seem to despise it for forcing them to take their teams to inconvenient locations.

Interestingly enough, the UEFA Cup was often harder to win than the European Cup back in the seventies and eighties. What is rarely asked is why that should be a good thing; in this, as in so much else, football seems to have a reflex nostalgia for thirty years ago.

The UEFA Cup began as the Inter-City Fairs Cup, a tournament set up to promote trade fairs. Teams qualified not by where they finished in their domestic league but by belonging to a city that hosted a trade fair (no more than one per city per year). In 1971, the tournament was taken under the auspices of UEFA and qualification was rejiggered to include – depending on the nation – the two, three, four or five best sides who hadn’t already qualified for European competition by winning their league (and thus going into the European Champions Cup) or the cup (and thus going into the Cup-Winners’ Cup.) For most countries that was determined by league position; some, such as England, also gave one spot to the winning of the secondary cup competition.

The result was a tournament with great strength in depth. It was possible to win the European Cup by overcoming only a couple of decent sides. Yet, nobody got lucky in the UEFA Cup. It was a proper test of sustained quality, though it lacked the very best three or four sides in Europe. Most years, it contained at least 15 of the best 20.

It was a great tournament that produced some great winners; Borussia Monchengladbach in 1975; Liverpool a year later; Bobby Robson’s Ipswich in 1981; the Napoli of Diego Maradona in 1989. Sadly, it didn’t make much sense later in time. Why was a secondary competition of higher quality than the primary one?

That flaw disappeared in 1992 with the advent of the Champions League, which expanded through the nineties until it included as many as four teams from one country. The impetus, of course, was financial but the change of format also shook up the hierarchy: the primary competition had finally become the premier competition. That meant a readjustment on the part of the UEFA Cup and the Cup-Winners’ Cup. In 1999, the Cup-Winners’ Cup was done away with as the two tournaments merged.

This was all entirely logical. Traditionalists may have lamented the loss but what they were railing against wasn’t the new competition; rather it was the capitalist surge football went through in the nineties. From 2004-05 a group stage was introduced, for precisely the same reason it exists in the Champions League: more games mean more money, both in terms of gate receipts and broadcast rights.

For many English clubs, that came as the final straw. Gary Megson’s Bolton, Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa and Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham all ended up playing weakened sides in the Europa League with the logic seemingly being that greater rewards were available elsewhere, whether by qualification for the Champions league or avoiding relegation from the Premier League.

That, though, seems to miss the point. Like so much in the modern game, it seems to place money above glory. The Europa League is not the Champions League and shouldn’t be thought of as anything other than its little brother. It is there not for the biggest sides but for the big sides from the medium-sized (in football terms) countries and the medium-sized sides from the big countries.

It’s not for Real Madrid and Manchester United; it’s for the likes of Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid. It gives the best teams from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Portugal the chance of European glory, but it also offers the possibility of European success to Fulham and Middlesbrough, both of whom have reached the final in the past six years. Last season, Athletic Bilbao’s surge to the final produced some of the most viscerally exciting football Europe has seen. And while it may feel overlong to jaded English eyes, it’s a vital source of revenue for teams from Serbia or Denmark or even Scotland.

Hearts last year went out of the Europa League at this stage last season, thrashed 5-0 at home by Tottenham. They went on to finish fifth in the Scottish Premier League, qualifying for Europe by thrashing their Edinburgh rivals Hibernian 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final.

Although they came agonizingly close in 1986, Hearts haven’t won the league since 1960, existing, as Scottish clubs do, in the shadow of Celtic and Rangers. They did, six years ago, briefly threaten to break the stranglehold of the Old Firm. Buoyed by investment from the Russian-Lithuanian oligarch, Vladimir Romanov, they won their first eight matches of the season only for the manager, George Burley, to be sacked for reasons that have never been fully explained. Romanov has gone through eight further managers since and although he remains in charge, the club last season was repeatedly late in paying the players’ wages, a crisis only averted by the sale of Eggert Jonsson to Wolves.

With budget constraints clearly an issue, 13 players left the club this summer with just one, the Australian defender Dylan McGowan, arriving. They’ve begun this season with a win and two draws but, given how comfortably they beat them in the Cup final in May, it was surely significant that they could only labor to a point against Hibs.

They shouldn’t represent too much of a threat to Liverpool — but then again nobody quite knows how the Reds will react after Saturday’s defeat.