After a season full of highs and lows, it was a rather disappointing and dull display against Aston Villa on Sunday that ended Liverpool's year. Ironically, it was just the sort of apathetic outing that at times seemed the norm in the Europa League for the club this season, and with two consecutive underwhelming performances to end the league campaign it is that competition which Liverpool is now set to miss out on. The former UEFA Cup may not be what it once was, but it still wasn't a day that left a great many positives for Kenny Dalglish to talk up.
"The most important thing for us is we did the best we possibly could," he said afterwards, trying to put the season into perspective. "It's not their fault their legs ran out a wee bit and they came up a wee bit short—but the disappointment is for them, not with them."
In the end, though, it wouldn't have mattered if Liverpool had won, as elsewhere Tottenham defeated Birmingham City 2-1 to secure their entry into the Europa League ahead of Liverpool while also securing Birmingham's relegation to the Championship. Still, it couldn't be denied that following a buoyant reunion, with Liverpool rocketing up the table after Dalglish's return in January, the pair of tired defeats against Tottenham and Aston Villa that ended the season and killed Liverpool's rather unexpected hopes for European competition were a disappointing capstone.
"It's a long time since this club hasn't been in Europe, so it's new ground for everybody. We need to get on with it and accept that we aren't in it, but we didn't not qualify for Europe because we lost the game today, it was because we had a bad start to the season and if you start as badly as that, you're lucky to be sixth come the end of it."
True as that may be, it can't help but be a little disappointing to be out of Europe for the first time in over ten years and feeling as though the team let a chance that was in their hands slip away, no matter the reasons and justifications. The European competition Liverpool will be missing out on, though, most certainly isn't the old UEFA Cup won by Shankly and Paisley, or even the one captured by Gerard Houllier in his treble-winning season. It might not even be the Europa League of the past two seasons that Liverpool found themselves at times toiling unhappily in.
This time around, on top of a disinterested Tottenham, England will be sending a Who's that? collection of teams to Europe's second club cup competition. The largest contingent from any federation, from the supposed best league in the world, will be made up of a Spurs side that has publicly proclaimed the tournament a distraction along with the aforementioned Birmingham City, who will take part in the European competition after defeating stumbling Arsenal in the League—aka. Carling—Cup in February. And after having been demoted yesterday to the Championship, the second level of England's footballing pyramid.
Somewhat unbelievably, they won't be the only ones who find themselves in that position—they will be joined in the Europa League by Ian Holloway's Blackpool. The Seasiders finished second behind Tottenham in the UEFA fair play table when Fulham—who were up until around a quarter-to-six in England yesterday the second ranked English club in those fair play rankings—had a player sent off and fell to third. Tottenham, who had already qualified through their league position, was the top ranked English team in the fair play metrics but since they had already qualified weren't eligible for the convoluted honour. As a result, the award passed to Blackpool, the second least penalised team in this year's Premier League and along with Birmingham one of the three newest members of next season's Championship1.
The fourth member sent by the English FA to compete for European glory will then be hoof-maestros Stoke City, who qualified not by winning but simply by reaching the final of the FA Cup, which they then lost in rather dull fashion to a Manchester City side who was ineligible for the Europa League slot typically awarded to the winner on account of qualifying for the Champions League.
So. One club that doesn't want to be there. One club that won a second-tier domestic cup and is now relegated. One club that finished second in the fair play rankings and is now relegated. And one mid-table club that lost a domestic cup final.
For all that the later stages of the competition can at times look appealing, this disastrous set of results for UEFA and the English FA shows just why Spurs weren't particularly enthused to get into the Europa League in the first place. And it shows just how much UEFA and the various federations have screwed up this once secondary but proud and appealing cup competition in their efforts to puff the Champions League up to its current proportions, throughly strip-mining any appeal from the old UEFA Cup to feed the hymns and beer commercials of their top competition. Throw in the parachutes given to third place finishers in the Champions League group stage that send failures down to the Europa League and it is only further cheapened from what it once was.
The old UEFA Cup was a competition that clubs still wanted to be in, still wanted to win. Now it isn't even close to that, and things only seem to get worse by the year. For a competition with as much history as it has, that's nearly as depressing as the idea of Liverpool missing out on European play for the first time in over a decade. Because Liverpool is supposed to be in Europe, and it does hurt that they aren't. But the UEFA Cup—or Europa League as it's now known—is supposed to matter, too, and right now it doesn't.
Regardless, missing out on not only the Champions League but on European play entirely should be survivable for Liverpool. At least, that's what Kenny Dalglish thinks:
"I think Liverpool Football Club is a big enough attraction for players. If we want to bring somebody in, I am sure the club will be a huge attraction for them. Anybody that is going to come in is going to have to be a lot better than what we've got here—and that's only a chosen few.
"We'll be selective with what we want to do and if a player doesn't want to come, it's their loss, not ours."
Liverpool fans will be hoping he's right, while perhaps taking comfort in the thought that at least there's some reason for hope with Liverpool. For the old UEFA Cup that the club's players once proudly held aloft it seems a different story, with European football's governing body having all but killed off its old number two competition in recent years. And now a once worthy cup is being handed a pair of relegated English clubs, one more insult laying bare just what a farce it has become, while at least Liverpool again seems in safe hands even if they won't spend any time next season on the continent.
With Birmingham and Blackpool and Stoke set to head to the furthest corners of Europe, it might even be said that Liverpool is well enough placed to survive a year away from Europe while it is the competition already on life support that is left to take another critical blow and wonder about its future. After all, most will expect Liverpool to find their way back towards the top of the League table and into Europe's premier competition fairly soon under Kenny Dalglish and the club's new owners. It's doubtful that nearly as many will expect Europe's second cup competition to ever regain the relevance and meaning it once had.
1As rightly pointed out by Xantheina, there will actually be six new clubs in the Championship next season when one accounts for promotions from League One.