Steven Gerrard and his teammates last brandished the Champions League trophy in Istanbul in 2005. Few of Liverpool’s celebrating supporters would have believed that only seven years later the Reds would be opening their European campaign in early August against such minnows as their opponents on Thursday, FC Gomel. Liverpool’s journey to the Belarusians’ 14,000-capacity stadium involves a train journey of several hours from the capital of Minsk.
How the once-mighty have fallen. Liverpool must pre-qualify for the Europa League, the Champions League’s little brother (live, Thursday at 2 PM ET on FOX Soccer)
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Liverpool are a long way from the big-time world the club used to inhabit under Rafael Benitez, who took the Reds to two Champions League finals – Milan was beaten in 2005 but obtained revenge over Liverpool in Athens two years later – let alone Bob Paisley, whose regime collected four European titles between 1977 and 1984.
So what can be done about it? The hard work must start in Gomel, for which Liverpool have prepared with three friendly games in North America, and by next May it must have yielded either the Europa League trophy or one of the top four places in England’s Premier League – for these are the two possible tickets back to where Liverpool need to be. The Champions League still seems like home to the club’s support and, more pertinently, the cash injection it could provide is the key to prosperity under New England ownership of John Henry and Tom Werner.
The revival of Fenway Park was one thing, but Anfield is likely to prove quite another for Henry and Werner, despite the continuing patience of the supporters. The Americans have sacked two coaches in less than as many years and, while they were applauded for ending the unhappy tenure of Roy Hodgson – now England’s national coach – the dismissal of Kenny Dalglish must have been approached with all the relish of hunters being asked to shoot Bambi. Yet, the public understood and can be expected to stay onside as long as the new man in charge, Brendan Rodgers, provides soccer of the required quality.
The tour, however, was hardly a success. After tying 1-1 with Toronto FC, Liverpool lost 2-1 to Roma before rounding matters off with a goalless game in which midfielder Charlie Adam was branded a ‘’coward’’ by Tottenham’s Gareth Bale after a tackle that injured his speedy Welsh opponent. Defeat over two legs at the hands of Gomel – there will be an opportunity at Anfield to atone for any slips this week – verges on the unthinkable.
Right away there is pressure on Rodgers, whose previous feats in getting Swansea City into the Premier League and, last season, keeping it there with a brand of controlled football that earned comparison with Barcelona were achieved, at least initially, under a far less intense spotlight.
Much, as ever, depends on the condition of Gerrard. He is now 32 but still the star of a club desperate to recall former glories before he retires. Gerrard was late back to training after captaining the national team during Euro 2012 in Ukraine, but should be ready for Belarus and the beginning of the long march. Gerrard was Liverpool’s Champions League hero in 2004-2005, saving the early campaign with a sensational late goal against Olympiakos of Greece and then starting the comeback from 3-0 down the final.
Luis Suarez has been on Olympic Games duty with Uruguay but will soon resume his role as joint key man, with Gerrard. The main new face is that of Fabio Borini, from Roma, but there are worries about the defence as the local hero Jamie Carragher continues to age and new pastures are tempting last season’s central pair of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel. At least the midfield shelters an encouraging aspect in the return from long-term injury of Lucas Leiva, the ferociously industrious Brazilian who had won the fans over after a slow start.
But this Europa League campaign is really a long shot. When it gets deadly serious, the Europa League becomes a cup and anything can happen in cup competitions, as Liverpool, having won one domestic final last season and lost the other, know as well as any club. The main focus will be on the Premier League and at least fourth spot, which Gerrard has declared Liverpool more than capable of achieving.
Can Rodgers succeed where Dalglish failed? When speaking to the English press at Fenway Park when Liverpool played Roma, Henry replied, "I don’t place the blame on Kenny and [assistant] Steve Clarke. The response to Kenny and Steve was lacking.’’
Yet the players have stayed – it is Dalglish who has gone. If that sounds ominous to you, it should. Rodgers, who magnificently developed Swansea, appears to have his work cut out this time. The task of proving the sceptics wrong begins in Belarus.