Liverpool: How Long Before the Reds Can Become a Champions League Club Again?

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Liverpool: How Long Before the Reds Can Become a Champions League Club Again?
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December 9, 2009, Liverpool lose 2-1 away to Fiorentina and are knocked out of the Champions League.

That ended Rafa Benitez's run of having taken Liverpool to at least the knock-out phases of the competition in every season he has been in charge. 

Under Benitez, Liverpool had won the competition in 2004-05, and in the following years had reached the round of 16, lost a final to AC Milan, reached the semifinal and reached the quarterfinal. Over that five-year stretch, the Reds were a European force to be feared who took on and beat the best at home and away.

When the final whistle blew in Florence, nobody realized it but an era had come to an end.

Liverpool have not competed in Europe's elite competition since, and truth be told, haven't come close to qualifying.

A lot has changed at Anfield in the almost three years since that match. New owners have taken over after the old ones were finally leveraged out. Rafa Benitez was sacked and replaced by Roy Hodgson, who in turn was sacked and replaced by the returning legend, Kenny Dalglish.

Dalglish's return was supposed to mark the start of Liverpool finding their way again, but it turned out to be another false dawn. He was replaced after 18 months by Brendan Rodgers.

Rodgers has been tasked with getting Liverpool back into the Champions League, but he won't be expected to do it immediately.

He's been given a three-year contract, and he's also been given a promise of time and patience from the owners. The fans may not be as patient, but if they can see visible signs of gradual improvement in the team over a sustained period of time, they won't be getting on his back any time soon.

Rodgers took on a mammoth task when he swapped Swansea City for Liverpool this summer—the task of rebuilding one of the world's great clubs. While he would have known how big that task was, many outside of the club would not.

Liverpool fans, on the whole, are a fairly knowledgeable group when it comes to football, and they will have looked at three successive finishes of seventh, sixth and eighth and known that Liverpool weren't a club on the cusp of Champions League qualification.

While some might have held up hopes of Rodgers performing miracles and getting the team back into the top four this season, most were realistic and understood, from the off, that it was going to take time to get there.

But how much time?

There is no such thing as a quick fix in football unless you are Real Madrid or Barcelona and play in a league where you really only have one team as true competition for the domestic title.

Take a look at the other top leagues in Europe, the Bundesliga and Serie A, and look at their current champions.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Jurgen Klopp rebuilt Borussia Dortmund and won the Bundesliga in his third year in charge.

Borussia Dortmund have won back-to-back titles in the Bundesliga under Jurgen Klopp. Klopp is rightly regarded as one of the best minds in world football—a tactical genius who also possesses a fantastic eye for talent.

Having taken over in 2008, Klopp began to rebuild Dortmund piece by piece, and in his third season in charge, 2010-11, he guided them to the league title.

Juventus are back on top of Italian football after the disgrace that fell upon the club in 2006. They were relegated to Serie B after being caught up in the Calciopolli scandal.

Didier Deschamps managed to guide them back to Seria A before resigning in the summer of 2007. Since then they have had five managers, four of whom failed to bring a Scudetto to Juventus.

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Antonio Conte stepped into a rebuild that was well under way and won the Serie A title first time out.

Antonio Conte took over in the summer of 2011 and won the Serie A title, without losing a league match, in his first season. It would be easy to look at that and assume he is a managerial genius. He arguably is but it's not that simple.

Juventus always have a fantastic structure in place around their manager, whoever that may be. That structure stays in place as managers come and go. Members of that structure can be replaced but the premise and the policy is rarely, if ever, altered. 

Juventus built their new team slowly, piece by piece over a four-year period that culminated in Conte's arrival, the final additions to the team and the subsequent league title.

At a club like Juventus, the manager has little say in transfers and, due to the people they have in place, there was never a tear-it-up-and-start-again strategy in terms of players. Players were brought in each summer, some worked out and others did not. Those who worked out stayed at the club, and each new manager was required to integrate them into their team.

Conte's tactical brilliance throughout last season should not be downplayed, but he did not inherit year one of a plan, he came in for year five.

These two clubs, despite using different formulas, are evidence that taking the time to build carefully is the right way forward. 

It's the method Liverpool will use under Rodgers, and while it's unlikely that he'll win a league title within the three years of his current contract, that third season is when he will hopefully take the Reds back into the top four.

This season is about implementing a new system and style of play. It's about clearing the deadwood from the squad and planting new seeds. It's about getting the players to understand what their specific roles are because, in a Brendan Rodgers set-up, each role is specifically tailored to fit into the overall system of the team.

Last season Liverpool did not have a system like that,; they had a system which basically allowed the players to express themselves freely and just try to outplay their opponents based on sheer talent. They simply didn't have the talent to do it and the results proved that.

This season the players will be allowed to express themselves while retaining tactical discipline and a set way of playing. It's a system that the players need to believe in for it to work and, based on performances thus far this season, the players are buying into it.

Liverpool's final position this season really isn't of importance in the grand scheme of things. A second successive eighth-place finish will not be a disaster as long as progression is being made on the field. 

Next season Rodgers will be expected to at least mount a challenge for the top four. Going into next season he will have had three transfer windows to rebuild the squad, and he should have a team in place that is close to what he wants.

Results will be of much greater importance next season and a top-six finish will be the minimum requirement, as will good showings in the cup.

That top-six finish does need to be quantified. Finishing 15 points behind the team in fourth will not be good enough. Liverpool need at least to be in contention for a top-four finish going into April 2014. If they were to attain that top-four place, it would be a fantastic achievement, but I feel it may still be slightly outside the realms of possibility.

A Europa League spot via league qualification would be a good aim for Rodgers' second season in charge of the club.

Rodgers' third season in charge, the 2014-15 season, will be the one. That will be the season which will make or break Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool manager, in my view. After two years and five transfer windows as Liverpool manager, there would be no excuses.

For those who may feel that is too long to wait, take the example of megarich Manchester City into consideration for a moment. 

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought the club in the summer of 2008 and began pumping enormous amounts of money in, beginning with the signing of Robinho. City did not qualify for the Champions League in either of the first two seasons under Mansour's ownership.

It was not until the third season of playing happy billionaires that the Manchester club finally earned a top-four finish. If it took three years and vast amounts of money for City to manage it, it would be unrealistic for Liverpool fans to expect it to be done with less.

Liverpool are in a better starting position than City were in the summer of 2008 but are obviously working on a far smaller budget. In my view it balances out, as Liverpool's needs are less than City's were so they don't need to spend similar amounts of money.

Giving Brendan Rodgers until that third season is reasonable in terms of expecting him to get the job done, as well as in terms of expecting the fans to have patience.

For their part, Liverpool fans will have to support the team and the manager through the good times and the bad. They will have to see the big picture, and they will have to stand united as one and not begin to bicker or show signs of discontent. 

For his part, Rodgers will have to have his team in place. His system and style of play will be not just implemented but ingrained into the club. The young players that are currently lighting up Liverpool's first team, like Sterling, Suso and Wisdom, will all likely have around 100 appearances for the club and should be more than capable of producing the goods week in and week out.

The next generation of youngsters, headed by Sinclair, McLaughlin, Jones, Ibe and O'Hanlon will all be ready to contribute.

And Rodgers will likely have a gross spending total of close to £100 million by that point.

Liverpool will have a Champions League-caliber squad come August 2014, of that I have no doubt. Brendan Rodgers will then need to prove that he is a Champions League-caliber manager and return Liverpool to their rightful position among Europe's elite.

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