Nine years. It’s been nine years since Liverpool took part in the Champions League knockout rounds, all the way back in the spring of 2009. Nine years spent toiling on the fringes of Europe. Two unsuccessful Champions League group stage efforts to go with three Europa League qualifying seasons and three years spent out of Europe entirely. And, finally, this season, a return to the Champions League knockout rounds.
It was all the way back in 2008-09, that last time Liverpool made it, and when they did they lost to Chelsea in the quarter-finals. It was their second year running dumped out by the Blues, who dispatched them in the semis in 2007-08—after Liverpool knocked Chelsea out in 2006-07 and 2004-05, making Chelsea and then-manager Jose Mourinho, for at least a time, their chief European rivals.
Liverpool, though, looked to be in a good place. At least on the surface. In Rafa Benitez they had a world class manager who had won them the Champions League in 2005, they were qualified for the next season’s competition as fans assumed they always would be, and the team was strong—they were in the midst of pushing Manchester United close for the league title, their second runners-up finish of the Premier League era.
They had an enviable spine of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, of Javier Mascherano and Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina, and at the tip of the attack they had Fernando Torres in his prime. Then it all fell apart. Liverpool’s new owners had loaded the club with debt to purchase it and despite the outward success of the 2008-09 season, behind the scenes things were rotten and any success on the pitch unsustainable.
There was no money to buy without selling, which even in the summer of 2008 had led to the near-sale of Xabi Alonso in a deal meant to fund the arrival of Gareth Barry in midfield along with another player, likely one to play on the left of Benitez’ attacking midfield trio. Barry would have been a downgrade to that enviable spine, but Benitez’ hope was that on net it would have led to a stronger overall squad.
The deal in the end fell through, but the damage with Alonso was done and a year later he pushed to leave. And a year later, too, the rot behind the scenes had been dragged out into the light by Benitez, who spent the 2009-10 season battling the owners. He lost that battle in the end—and, with the squad having been weakened rather than reinforced the previous summer, finished third in their Champions League group.
Benitez’ two group stage wins in the autumn of 2009, though, were as close as the club got to a successful Champions League run in the intervening years. The next season, Roy Hodgson arrived, overseeing a successful Europa League group stage effort that was overshadowed by league struggles and a fanbase aligned against a manager seen as little more than the instrument of Benitz’ dispatchers.
Hodgson, by everything he said and did, seemed ill-suited to the task of managing the club, but with the playing squad depleted and having been brought in to replace Benitez he never really had a chance. New owners Fenway Sports Group arrived in the autumn, saving the club from the threat of administration—of docked points and potentially following in the footsteps of fallen top flight clubs like Leeds and Portsmouth.
Soon after, Kenny Dalglish arrived to replace Hodgson and as an effort to at least begin to heal the relationship with the club’s fans that had been so strained by former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillet and their various upper management representatives. It worked to do that, but it didn’t bring success on the pitch as Liverpool lost in the Europa League’s Round of 16 against Braga and failed to qualify for Europe in the league.
The next season, 2011-12, saw them out of Europe and limping to eighth in the league, and even though they won the League Cup—and in so doing qualified for the following Europa League—the side looked worse than they had under Dalglish in his first half-season after replacing Hodgson. It meant that Brendan Rodgers soon had the task of replacing him, and at least early on there were some signs of promise.
In 2012-13 under Rodgers they topped their Europa League group, and in the league the side looked to be much improved, but they lacked depth and in spring it caught up to them as they lost to Zenit in the Round of 32 and lost touch with the top four in the league, in the end finishing sixth and failing to qualify for Europe entirely. In retrospect, that would be something of a blessing in disguise for Rodgers and Liverpool.
The next season, that same thin but talented squad finished second—just the third time in the Premier League era Liverpool came that close to winning the league. Then it all fell apart again. Star striker Luis Suarez was sold and the reinvestment was botched. Liverpool were back in the Champions League but they looked out of place, imposters. They won just one group match and failed to advance.
By the end of it, Liverpool were limping to another poor league finish—another sixth place, though this time with Europa League qualification thanks to the domestic cup results—and Rodgers too looked finished. It took five months from the end of the 2014-15 season for it to be made official, in October of 2015, with the arrival of Jürgen Klopp, the most highly regarded manager the club have had since Benitez was forced out.
It’s been nine long years since Liverpool reached the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Nine years spent on the fringes in Europe. Nine years of hope. Of the hope of seeing Hicks and Gillett forced out and the new owners bringing in Kenny Dalglish. Of the hope of his first six months in charge. Of the hope of Rodgers’ first two seasons at the club and of his title challenging 2013-14 campaign.
And it’s been nine long years of watching that hope fade. Nine years of watching the club stumble just when it looked like it might have rediscovered its place amongst Europe’s elite. Of seeing the squad regress in Dalglish’s second season. Of seeing Rodgers fail to cope with the departure of Suarez. Of watching problem areas in the squad not being addressed and too many obviously poor transfers made.
All along, Liverpool fans have looked at Champions League qualification as the goal—the achievement to get Liverpool back where they belong. But being in the Champions League has never been enough. Making it through to the knockout rounds—and doing it while ensuring qualification for the next season via league performance—is the goal. It’s what should always have been the goal; the real measure of success.
This season, finally, Liverpool have managed the first half of that with Klopp. And they look well positioned for the other. After nine long years on the fringes, just maybe, Liverpool are finally, properly on the verge of being back. Truly back. And they play their first Champions League knockout round game in nine long years on Wednesday, at 7:45PM GMT, against FC Porto. It’s been too long.