When Liverpool won the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup during the 2000-01 season, there was a degree of discussion (mostly from supporters of a certain club in Manchester) about how the treble achieved by Gérard Houllier's squad was a pale shadow of the "real" treble - i.e., the Premier League championship, the FA Cup and the Champions League trophy.
On its face, it's not an entirely unreasonable assessment to make. Ask the members of that 2000-01 squad if they would trade those three trophies for either the Premier League championship or a Champions League winner's medal, and you would likely get more than one willing to make the deal. The same would probably be true if you posed the question to Liverpool supporters from that era.
This is not to diminish the magnitude of the accomplishment of Houllier's squad, nor to devalue the magical memories of that season - memories which would include an absolutely breathtaking roller-coaster ride of an UEFA Cup final against Alavés. Still, it should come as no surprise to observers of English football that the Europa League (as the current incarnation of the UEFA Cup) is sometimes thought of as a second-tier competition at best, and at worst, a distraction for the clubs fighting for Champions League spots.
It may, however, come as a surprise that this assessment is not universal. Of course the Europa League cannot compare with the Champions League in terms of money involved. And naturally, any given league's Champions League representatives will generally have performed better domestically than their Europa League counterparts - that is simply the nature of how the respective competitions are assembled.
To dismiss the Europa League as not worth the effort, however, is an idea that Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp does not understand. Speaking to the Guardian, Klopp expressed some degree of bemusement over the image of the Europa League in England.
I heard that the image of the Europa League was not good in England and I don’t really understand why. The players have liked it, and I would have been happy with the Europa League even if we’d gone out in the quarter-finals. It was a nice journey, a good experience.
Usually you work the whole year to go to Europe so to be in it was a nice bonus. I know the top four is the top four, but if you are fifth, take it, use it, do whatever. I like playing matches, whatever the competition.
Those more inclined towards cynicism might suggest that these are the words of a manager aiming to keep a squad energized for their one remaining chance at a trophy. Klopp is such a master of making the unusual seem obvious that when he talks about it, he makes the Europa League sound like the more "fun" competition. And perhaps it is. This year's iteration of the Europa League has offered no small amount of drama in recent fixtures, and you can see why the unglamorous, awkward step-sibling of the Champions League might be ready for its close up.
More importantly for Liverpool supporters, the upcoming fixtures against Villareal represent another very real chance at a trophy. There was already one opportunity this season, in the form of the League Cup final against Manchester City. The club will have a second chance to take home a cup, and with more at stake this time. However prestigious the competition may or may not be, there is an undeniable sense of excitement around Liverpool at the moment, which the manager elaborated upon in speaking to the Guardian.
I feel there is a power at this club. I felt it when we played Dortmund at Anfield and I saw it in the streets before the game. I believe that there are some clubs who are always more likely to win trophies than other clubs.
I don’t know where that comes from, but I felt it for the first time when I was at Dortmund. Michael Zorc [sporting manager at Dortmund] told me when Bayer Leverkusen were breathing down our necks at the end of one season that I shouldn’t worry. He said they wouldn’t win because Leverkusen never win and that Dortmund were a club that wins titles. I feel that at Liverpool, and I think the supporters do too.
And when the manager puts it like that, why wouldn't you want to be in the Europa League?