Last Thursday, Jordan Henderson played the role of unlikely hero in Liverpool's tense 1-0 victory over Udinese. His 24th-minute goal on that cold night in Italy sealed the Reds' passage into the final 32 of the Europa League, where they have the possibility of facing some of Europe's most exciting sides in their bid to capture their first continental crown since 2005.
The Europa League, formerly the UEFA Cup, is viewed as the "little brother" to the more popular and financially beneficial Champions League, and has even been downplayed by players in recent past.
“Even if it is a friendly, when I pull on United shirt I do my best to win that trophy," said Manchester United defender Patrice Evra. "But it is embarrassing to be in the Europa League." (h/t dailyfootballnews.org)
Contrary to public opinion, the Europa League is a prestigious platform by which players and managers can become heroes (Andre Villas-Boas and Falcao) and teams can surpass expectation and increase their global stature (Fulham).
It is also a competition that Liverpool is already familiar with, having conquered the UEFA Cup in 1973, 1976 and 2001 according to statto.com. If the Reds are looking to begin their ascent to the European summit once more, there is no time like the present to turn their focus to the Europa League.
Liverpool's squad, though paper-thin in some areas of the pitch, is more than capable of putting other Europa competitors to the sword.
When Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson and Raheem Sterling are firing on all cylinders, the Reds are more than a match for any team. If supplemented correctly in the January transfer window with top-notch players, Liverpool could fight its way to the final while pressing for a higher domestic position at the same time.
With regards to the league: while Liverpool would love to finish in the top four and qualify for a coveted Champions League position, a Europa League title would go a long way in showing intent to challenge for major titles.
A domestic cup victory and a continental cup triumph in consecutive years build a strong platform for future success and have a stronger selling point than a simple fourth-place finish and uninspiring Champions League qualification. Cup wins also allow Liverpool to put more on the table when recruiting players against other mid-table English teams such as Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton.
"It's really good for our momentum to qualify," explained Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers in his post-match press conference after Liverpool's victory in Udine.
The Reds must use their momentum toward this competition. Above all else, Liverpool must make winning the Europa League their top priority. Champions League qualification in the current term would be a dream finish to an otherwise unimpressive start.
Liverpool have substantial ground to make up to catch the teams chasing a top-four spot and without reloading their attack in January, the Reds will have a hard time finishing in one of the qualifying spots. The Europa League title is an attainable goal this season, and Liverpool must seize its chance and throw everything available at the cup.
Will is a huge soccer fan living in the woods of Mississippi. You can check out his other articles or follow him on twitter - @willcaves.
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