Liverpool must take Europa League seriously in order to avoid lost season
Eternal optimists have sought to lift Liverpool supporters' spirits by claiming the club can still qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League. How long such fanciful talk persists depends on what sort of performance Jurgen Klopp's men give in the away leg of their Europa League last-32 clash at Augsburg on Thursday.
Traditionalists will welcome the fact that Anfield stages the second leg a week later, invoking memories of many great European nights at the stadium. The more miserable among them might reflect on Liverpool's poor home form this season and hope the players can get the job done in the first leg. The 6-0 thrashing of Aston Villa was another outstanding day out for the travelling fans, who have revelled in any fun that's been had during the 2015-16 season.
There are 32 clubs left in the Europa League and a quick glance down the list suggests Liverpool have their work cut out if they are to even speculate upon reaching the final, staged in Basel's St Jakob Park on May 18. Basel may even be one of those finalists but it's more likely two other clubs will take part. Sevilla have a tremendous record in this competition, while Liverpool's nemesis Manchester United talk of salvaging a pitiful season of their own with Europa League success.
Napoli, Tottenham and Klopp's old club Borussia Dortmund are having outstanding domestic seasons and they will all be considered favourites, too. In short Liverpool have it all to do even if they do get past their German opponents in the Round of 32.
Augsburg are having a stranger season than Liverpool if that even seems impossible. Having qualified for Europe by coming fifth in the Bundesliga last term, they began this season dreadfully and have been struggling near the foot of the table ever since, winning just one of their opening 12 league games and sinking to 18th place.
Klopp and United's Louis Van Gaal may curse the lack of a winter break in Englan but Augsburg's experience this season shows there is a flip side to all that rest. Having run into some good form by mid-December, the month-long break in Germany hasn't done them any favours and they're yet to win since returning to action in late January. Their last game was a 1-3 home defeat to Bayern Munich, hardly a surprise since Pep Guardiola's side seems rampant at the moment.
Augsburg will presumably see the visit of an erratic Liverpool as an ideal opportunity to light a fire under their domestic season, since relegation is a real possibility. Klopp meanwhile will feel bolstered by the thrashing of Villa, the return of Daniel Sturridge and Liverpool's better form away from home. Some first-hand knowledge of his opponents will also be an advantage but many feel it's what his own team can do that ultimately counts most.
Because of their FA Cup exit at West Ham the Reds have no game at the weekend, giving them a rare week off before renewing hostilities with Augsburg in the second leg. Klopp did pick his strongest side for the group stage games, diluting it slightly at Sion as qualification had already been achieved. He will be tempted to "go strong" again for Augsburg despite fears of another Sturridge breakdown.
One thing Klopp shares with his predecessors Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez is a great respect for European tournaments. Brendan Rodgers came in for criticism by selecting a weaker side for the visit to Real Madrid last season and although that was in more pragmatic circumstances, it would be good to see Liverpool doing their very best in Europe this time around.
Drawing Bundesliga opposition provides an interesting reflection on how Liverpool may change in the coming seasons. Klopp is the obvious Germanic influence on the club but Emre Can has been there for a while and Roberto Firmino also spent three years at Hoffenheim. This week also saw news of a deal struck for Schalke 04's defender Joel Matip, and fans will expect other raids on the Bundesliga in the coming summer.
The deal for Matip adds to the signing of Marko Grujic in January, displaying early signs that Klopp may get his own way in the transfer market rather than showing subservience to any committee. Perhaps the days of signing just a few players for £20 or £30 million each are over -- Klopp surely recognises that a big rebuilding job needs to be done by stealth rather than wealth.
An emphatic win like the 6-0 against Aston Villa always makes people reevaluate the size of the task in hand. Captain Jordan Henderson is already talking about a returning "fear factor" though in fairness, this was just a reference to Sturridge's goal threat. Even so, thrashing the worst team in England isn't indicative of a return to anything. Augsburg may not be doing so well themselves, but they will be up for Liverpool's visit. It may be more due to historical rather than current status, but Klopp's presence gives the fixture extra spice.
If Liverpool are to extend their interest in this season beyond the Capital One Cup final with Manchester City on Feb. 28, a good performance on Thursday is vital.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.