Remember the time when Gerard Houllier was leading Liverpool into the UEFA Cup almost every year? Remember the time when Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan were in Liverpool’s starting line-up? Remember the time when Steven Gerrard was sliding into advertising hoardings on muddy pitches in tiny East-European countries?
Following their embarrassing exit from the Champions League on Tuesday night, this is the standard Liverpool must return to.
After Rafa Benitez’s transformation of Liverpool since 2004, Reds fans have not had to experience the lowly UEFA Cup, or the Europa League as it is now called, since Houllier was manager. They thought those days were over.
A return to the Europa League also means a return to Channel Five or ITV4 for Liverpool. Second-rate competition, second-rate coverage. Move over Richard Keys and Andy Gray, Colin Murray and Pat Nevin are about to analyse Liverpool’s European adventure.
Unfortunately that adventure will now take place along the B roads of Europe, in stadiums occupied by Heerenveen and Hapoel Tel-Aviv rather than Real Madrid and Barcelona. Big European nights will no longer have that special underdog atmosphere to them, when the Kop has previously roared for their team to defeat giants like Inter Milan and Chelsea.
Liverpool will now be expected to coast through the Europa League and to lift the trophy in May after seeing off the main challenges of Shakhtar Donetsk, Valencia and Roma. While there are other good teams in the competition like Werder Bremen, Hamburg, Benfica and Villarreal, Liverpool still undoubtedly have the strongest team in the Europa League. Who else has a Steven Gerrard or a Fernando Torres?
Even if Liverpool do lift the Europa League at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg on May 12, their European season will still be considered a failure. Though he won the UEFA Cup with Valencia, Benitez has been used to Champions League football with Liverpool, qualifying for the tournament in every season he has been at the club, though they only qualified in 2005 due to winning the competition.
Liverpool have also always made it through the group stage under the Spaniard’s stewardship, though they have had some memorable scares, most notably in Benitez’s first season when Steven Gerrard scored a dramatic late goal to see off Olympiakos with Liverpool minutes from exit.
Once past the group stages, Liverpool have enjoyed some truly magnificent occasions in the later rounds of the Champions League under Benitez. There were spectacular European nights at Anfield against Bayern Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea in Benitez’s first season alone.
Then there was Istanbul, when a squad put together by Houllier was directed by Benitez to European glory in the most astonishing circumstances.
Benitez also guided Liverpool to the Champions League final in 2007, when AC Milan were fortunate to win 2-1 in Athens. Countless other European scalps have been pulled against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Arsenal. Who could forget those remarkable victories at the San Siro, the Nou Camp, and the Bernabeu?
But Benitez will no longer be taking part in the Champions League this season, the competition he has made his speciality at Liverpool. Injuries, last-minute goals and bad defending have contributed to Liverpool’s condemnation to the Europa League this season, the competition that Gerard Houllier made his speciality. Remember the time?