As he prepares to take charge of his first Champions League against Ludogrets Razgrad tonight Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers may have to make a difficult decision this season. If he hasn’t already made it. Have another serious go at winning Liverpool’s first Premier League title or to put the emphasis on making waves in the Champions League, hoping that success there will bleed sufficiently into their league form to secure a place in the top four.
Leaving Raheem Sterling on the bench against Aston Villa when Daniel Sturridge was already out absent with an injury may be an indication of where Liverpool’s priorities lie this year. It may also have been a moment of over-confidence in his newly acquired players, five of whom had never played at Anfield before.
Rodgers appears confident about Liverpool’s return to Europe’s elite club competition:
“We are not tourists in this competition – we believe it is where we belong and where we should be playing. We are Liverpool, we are five times winners of the European Cup and we are synonymous with its best traditions.”
A sentiment which has been lightly echoed by a surprising source, Paul Scholes:
Liverpool are the dark horse of the competition this year…Brendan Rodgers has done a fantastic job. The style of play he’s adopted is exciting to watch and the players seem to have taken to him. I feel they will do well with the players they have. The big advantage they have is a home crowd. Anfield is always a hostile place to go, which is something Manchester City lack.
This will be Liverpool’s ninth foray into the Champions League proper and they have an impressive strike-rate given their relatively few appearances. One win, one runner-up finish, a semi-final and two quarter-finals. Rodger’s confidence is not unfounded. However if Liverpool’s previous Champions League adventures are anything to go by he’s may have to sacrifice any ambitions of making a serious title challenge.
As the above graph shows, when Liverpool do really well in Europe their league form tends to suffers. When they won in 2005 they failed to finish in the top four, accruing a dismal 58 points. In 2007 when they were beaten 2-1 in the final by AC Milan they finished third in the Premier League, albeit with a slightly more respectable 68 points
Doing poorly doesn’t help either. In the 2002/03 and 2008/09 season Liverpool failed to qualify out of their Champions League group. Instead of freeing them up to concentrate on the league the disappointment saw the Reds finish out of the top four places on both occasions. Fifth and seventh respectively
Getting It Just right….
If you want to seriously challenge for the title then you need to do well enough to get out of the group but not so well you get past the quarter-finals. That has been the sweet spot for the Reds. Last 16 or quarter-finals, no further.
Liverpool have amassed 80 points or more in the Premier League three times in the same season they competed in the Champions League. 2001/02 when they made it to the quarter-finals, 2005/06 when they failed to get past the last 16 and 2008/09 when they were again knocked out at the quarter-final stage.
The odds say Brendan Rodgers should focus on domestic matters. Recent history says Europe is the way to go. My graph suggests he’s going to have to make a choice or suffer the consequences.