Now this writer’s name isn’t Earl, but he does know that if you do bad things in football, then bad things are likely to happen to you. Liverpool’s failure to hold onto good results against Lyon as they entered stoppage time both at Anfield and in eastern France is the reason why the Reds found themselves demoted to European football’s second tier on Tuesday night – Fiorentina’s 1-0 victory over the French side is not.
The bad mistakes that Liverpool made during the group stage meant that they weren’t deserving of a slice of good fortune in Italy, regardless of the fact that they beat Debrecen. Rafael Benitez’s Anfield reign has been filled with a myriad of magical moments and images from the Champions League – the sight of his players – led by skipper Steven Gerrard – crowding around a small television set in Budapest, groaning with frustration as Lyon’s Lisandro Lopez missed a late chance to equalise, was one of the most desperate.
Lopez didn’t miss his late chance to score against the Reds at the Stade Gerland earlier this month, earning Lyon an undeserved point on a night when Liverpool turned in an excellent European away performance and should have taken all three points. Similarly, Cesar Delgado’s Kop End winner in stoppage time when the sides met at Anfield – on a night when a point would have been a good result for an injury-hit, low on confidence Liverpool – was a hammer blow that the club never really recovered from. In what has become the theme of this whole campaign, the Reds twice lost focus in defence and twice they were punished. Those three lost points from the two clashes with Lyon would have set up a last day decider with Fiorentina at Anfield – the kind of fixture that Liverpool almost always get the job done in. The kind of fixture that has underpinned the club’s history. The kind of fixture that could have reignited this most disjointed of seasons.
Instead, the Europa League awaits. After becoming the first English team to exit the Champions League at this early stage since Manchester United in 2005, Liverpool must now learn from their fate. The short-term financial implications have been overblown by many, and could be considered negligible if and when the club finally secure the now vital outside investment they crave.
Money is still too tight to mention, but if taking their place amongst the European football hopefuls and Champions League also-rans is what it takes to produce the starkest of reality checks – both in the Anfield boardroom and amongst the club’s support – then perhaps this is what needed to happen. Benitez, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have all been honest and forthright with their views since Tuesday night, and all were right. Liverpool weren’t good enough to progress in the major competition and so now they must give their all in the lesser one. Who knows, the old UEFA Cup proved to be a stepping stone to greater successes for the Reds so often in the past – winning the trophy in both 1973 and 1976 laid the foundations for four European Cups in seven years – while the 2001 success put Liverpool on the path to competing regularly in, and winning, the Champions League. If the club have got to take a step backwards in order to go forwards then so be it. Frankly they haven’t got much choice, they’ve been stuck in limbo for too long.
Benitez’s claim that he will prioritise a top four finish above the potential ‘glory’ of a Europa League final in Hamburg in May will face its first challenge on Sunday in the familiar chaos of the Merseyside derby. Everton fans have been able to distract themselves from their own team’s poor form in recent weeks by reveling in the much more high profile problems of their neighbours. Observers who are familiar with the derby find it hard to discuss without reverting to the tried, trusted and tedious clich