With the Reds hopes of qualifying for the Champions League relying on their rivals dropping points, and success in the Europa League becoming more likely now that we've reached the quarterfinal stages, I ask the question, if you had to pick one which would you pick, another UEFA Cup (which is what the Europa League used to be called) to take the Reds total to 4, which would be a record, or a top 4 place, securing another season of top quality football against the best teams in Europe.
The Europa League is a much maligned competition. It's problem is that it is unloved. The top European giants (including Liverpool) believe that it is a tournament way below their level, and not worthy of their full effort, whilst the smaller sides who qualify, such as Aston Villa, rest their key players and play squad players, to ensure that their League form doesn't dip.
On the other hand, the UEFA Champions League is the most prestigious club competition in the world. Many argue, with some justification, that it is a higher quality tournament than the World Cup. With teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, AC Milan, Internazioanle and Liverpool regularly competing the Champions League hosts the best teams, leading to wonderful football, and enthralling encounters, which entertain millions world wide.
The first thing that got me thinking about this subject was an interview I read, which Jamie Carragher gave to liverpoolfc.tv, the club's official website, recently. In it Carra said, "I don't understand why people rubbish the Europa League. There are only two European trophies up for grabs every year. I mean, if you asked would I rather get in the semi-finals of the Champions League or win the Europa League, i'd rather win the Europa...People ask 'would you rather win the Europa Cup or finish top four?' Well, sometimes I think 'Win the cup'...It's about winning trophies."
This, in a nutshell, is the argument in favour of picking Europa League victory over a fourth place finish. Afterall, in 50 years time people are not going to look back and think, "Wow, Liverpool finished 4th in the 2009/10 season." They're much more likely to think, "Wow, Liverpool won the Europa League in the 2009/10 season, becoming the team first team to win the UEFA Cup 4 times."
In the end, as the great Bill Shankly said, "First is first, second is nowhere." If second is nowhere, where does that leave 4th place? At the end of the day, winning trophies, however meaningless they may seem, is much more important than finishing in 4th spot, which will never be remembered.
However, their is another compelling side to the argument, which I am inclined to argee with. Whilst 4th place may not be a significant success in the long term history of Liverpool Football Club, without Champions League football we could go into financial meltdown, in a similar fashion to Leeds United who, only 6 years after competing in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League, fell into administration, which condemned them to life in the third tier of English football. It was, and still is, the lowest level Leeds have ever played at.
£25 million is the estimated value of qualifying for the Champions League, with that revenue topped of by progressing to the later stages of the tournament. Liverpool's whole financial system relies on the team qualifying for the Champions League year after year.
Rafa Benitez is expected to work wonders on a shoestring, in order to pay off the loans that the Yanks have heaped on the club so they could purchase it. Of course the manager must accept responsiblity for some of the failings on the pitch, just like the players must, however it is illogical to expect any manager, even one of the best in Rafael Benitez, to even finish in the top 4, let alone win the title, when they are yoked with a "sell to buy" (or what is rapidly becoming a "sell not to buy") transfer policy.
A top 4 finish would enable the Reds to compete at the highest level for yet another season, and would also keep the club afloat financially, whilst we wait, more in hope than expectation, for some "Scouse Knights" to swoop in and save our club. Moreover, if Manchester City qualify for the Champions League, then that would be another attraction for the top players to join the Blue Mancs, on top of the vast riches offered to those willing to play for Mancini's men.
With the gap between the rich and the poor ever increasing in the football world, Liverpool must ensure that they remain in the "rich" section. The Reds supporters crave League success, after 20 barren years without a single League title, however that elusive 19th title will not be secured without major financial investment. Without the Champions League, and with Hicks and Gillett still in charge, there is little possibility of money being spent to build a Championship winning sqaud.
Liverpool must aim to both win the Europa League and claim 4th spot, to salvage something from what has been a dreadful season, however, if I had to choose I would pick 4th position over a Europa League win, simply because the consequences of failing to qualify for the Champions League could prove catastrophic.