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I had originally entitled this article “The race for 6th”, not due to my ignorance of the qualification process for Europe nor because I truly believe that either team is actively seeking 6th spot – Liverpool’s recent form is testament to that – but because it does raise the question of whether either manager or team for that matter would really be happy with 5th place and the Europa League responsibilities it brings with it.
Liverpool endured a torrid and frustrating European season this term and once knocked out appeared glad to see the back of it – as the fantastic run of performances and results since prove. For Spurs – they did experience the sweet taste of Champions League football but Tuesday night’s result means that they won’t be eating at Europe’s head table for at least another season. I imagine they may find it hard to endure trips to 10,000-seater stadiums in the outer reaches of Europe, and one would imagine Rafael van der Vaart and co. might find that a little hard to swallow. So what should they do? I am not suggesting they carefully throw their remaining games to ensure they do not have the inconvenience of European football; it just seems like a peculiar situation.
I have spoken to Liverpool fans who have rightly said they want their team to finish as high as possible and no team should ever let it creep into their minds that to lose might be more beneficial in the long run, what sort of attitude and state of mind would that breed? I may also be completely wrong in my assertions that these teams would like to avoid Europe or that this route would also be beneficial, so let’s examine the pros and cons as they relate to each team.
Liverpool have had new life breathed into them under Kenny Dalglish, and I imagine having learnt from an unconvincing journey this season and with a reinforced fully fit and fully eligible (Suarez was cup tied) squad they would probably fancy their chances of winning the trophy, and many (including myself) believe that only victory would ultimately be deemed as success in this competition for Liverpool. Furthermore, a 6th place finish in the league may put off potential transfer targets who want European football, as well as domestic success. It may be difficult to convince a player who has not followed Dalglish’s revolution first hand that they really will be up there challenging next season and so European football could be the sweetener. They will also be encouraged by the fact that Suarez joined them when they were flirting with the relegation zone in January, and looked destined for a mid-table finish at best. The only issue I can see with this is that the top category of players will want Champions League football. There is no way van der Vaart would have gone to Spurs if they had not qualified for Europe’s most prestigious competition.
Should Liverpool invest heavily in the summer as is expected and bring in five or six new faces, the extra games may give Kenny the opportunity to rotate the squad keeping players sharp and more importantly happy, while also continuing the development of some of the youngsters who have been outstanding recently. Of course the flip side of this is that in the latter stages the competition has the potential to become the poisoned chalice that many fear. Next season Liverpool will be looking for a minimum of Champions League qualification and therefore will have to overhaul, one suspects, Spurs, the cash happy Manchester City and maybe even battle with Everton, if they are to manage to get their pre-season in order once and for all. This means that come March/April time extra games are not welcomed and are also not the type you can send out the kids or squad players to “do a job”. This is when it could really hurt them.
For Spurs, it may be easier to handle the strains of the Europa League. They have a large squad and Harry will probably add to that should they qualify. I also believe that Harry is ruthless enough to ditch the Europa and play a second string if it means qualifying for the riches of the Champions League, however I think Liverpool have perhaps a little more respect for Europe and I am not sure would treat the competition with contempt.
Why it will really hurt Harry is that Spurs had caught the pack, they had “made it”, they were part of Europe’s elite, theoretically one of the “Big 4”, thumping Inter Milan, beating AC Milan, only to be brought back down to earth with a 4-2 defeat to Bolton and a 3-1 defeat to Blackpool, respectively. Manchester City’s money, and you suspect Liverpool’s new age, has seen them slip down the pecking order. So what now? They don’t have the pull Liverpool do to bring in any big names without European football, one would suspect. I feel out of the two clubs Europa football suits Spurs more. They can pick up some decent players and Harry can work his magic to get them playing like world beaters. The extra money can help them have a charge at the big boys again, but finish 6th and I think they may just slip further behind – as I am not sure they can realistically finish top four next season without major investment, and if the rumours about some of their stars leaving are to be believed next season could be a year of transition for the North London club.
If we are to assume that these two teams have top four ambitions next season and maybe even fancy themselves as outsiders for the Premier League crown, then whoever finishes 6th will have a massive advantage over the other five, that’s for sure.