On Thursday, Liverpool played out a goalless draw in Switzerland against FC Sion. The game itself was unremarkable -- in fact, it was Liverpool's fourth draw in six Europa League matches this season -- but the single point each team earned was enough to ensure that they both made it out of Group B. Liverpool maintained the top spot, while Sion made it through as the runners up, and both sides have booked a spot in the Round of 32.
For over half a decade now, Liverpool have struggled to prove themselves in Europe. Their fall has been swift and brutal. In the 2008-2009 season, Liverpool made it into the quarterfinals of the Champion's League. In 2009-2010, they finished third in their group, but then made it to the semi-finals of the Europa League, before losing to Atletico Madrid.
Then, of course, Liverpool's myriad internal and financial difficulties came to the forefront. Rafa Benitez was sacked and replaced by England's finest, Roy Hodgson. Out the door went Hicks and Gillett, after nearly sending the club into total financial ruin. Out went Mascherano, out with Torres. Sixth place, seventh place, eighth place...Two steps forward, one step back. A season of punching above their weight, of exhilarating brilliance from Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, followed by a season full of nothing but disappointment.
When a team falls out of the top tier of Europe, it's very difficult to return. Every year on the outside compounds the financial burdens, makes a team look less appealing to top transfer targets, make lucrative sponsorship deals begin to dwindle. And in a league as competitive as the Premier League, once one team loses pace, there are three others poised to take its place.
But after the farce that was Liverpool's European run last season, they've managed to be unbeaten so far, even amidst the turmoil that surrounded the end of Brendan Rodgers's Liverpool reign. If they just make it into the Round of 16, they will eclipse the results of each of the last five seasons.
In both 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, Liverpool topped their Europa League groups, only to fall in the Round of 32. Last season, the team bombed out of a relatively easy Champion's League group, Real Madrid notwithstanding, and then fell, once again, in the Europa League Round of 32.
The traveling and Thursday-Sunday schedule of the Europa League can feel a bit punishing, but once a team makes it through the group stages, the reward is much more interesting match-ups in the knockout rounds.
The drawing for the next round happens on Monday. Liverpool are seeded, thanks to winning their group, so they'll avoid the four teams with the best records to come down from the Champion's League, including Porto, Olympiacos, Bayer Leverkusen, and Manchester United -- although rules prohibit teams from facing a rival from the same country so early in the competition anyway. They'll also miss out on the other Europa group winners, including FC Basel, the team Liverpool fans will remember scored the runners up position in Liverpool's Champion's League group this time last season. Ah, memories.
There are fifteen teams who Liverpool may come up against in February, the most dramatic of which would be Klopp's former club, Borussia Dortmund. The German side are currently second in the Bundesliga, behind the behemoths of Bayern Munich. Should this be the fixture awaiting Liverpool in the Round of 32, it's possible that the narrative might overtake the actual football.
Dortmund is not the only German side with the potential to face Liverpool, however; FC Augsburg is also in the running. The four unseeded Champion's League transfers left are Shakhtar Donetsk, Sevilla, Galatasaray and Gary Neville's new club, Valencia. The other Europa League runners up that Liverpool could encounter include Fenerbahce, Fiorentina, Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht, Sparta Prague, Marseille, Saint-Etienne, Denmark's FC Midtjylland -- a team whose name I definitely didn't need to look up how to spell -- and the third Spanish possibility, Villarreal. FC Sion, who also advanced from Group B, will be disqualified from facing Liverpool again in this round.
Of course, some draws would be more difficult than others, and history has shown that in the last few years, Liverpool have the ability to bottle even the matches that, on paper, should be the easiest. However, despite the loss to Newcastle at the weekend, this team under Klopp has shown plenty of bright spots. Klopp joined the club having already proven himself on the European stage, and there's a hope that he has the acumen to help the team move past the psychological barrier they have created.
No one expects Liverpool to win the Europa League this season, but watching them put up a credible fight and showing the world that they're a team to fear facing once again would go a long way towards fixing some of what's been broken at Liverpool Football Club.