For large periods of last night’s Europa League playoff second leg, it appeared as though Trabzon was going to be as far as Liverpool would go on this season’s Europa League tour. Roy Hodgson went all the way to the final with Fulham last season – the Reds got to the semi-finals – but Teofilo Gutierrez’s early strike would have had him fearing that he was heading out of European competition before this season has really begun, still surely cursing an inability to kill off Trabzonspor at Anfield a week previously. Just as extra time loomed, the Reds’ overall superiority finally paid off in the closing eight minutes, and after Glen Johnson’s cutback was turned into his own net by Giray Kacar, Dirk Kuyt followed up a Dani Pacheco effort to finally see off the Turks.
A far away city on the Black Sea coast, driving, incessant rain, a hostile crowd jeering your every touch, a skilled opponent making your life as tough as possible, a bumpy, saturated pitch that was only getting worse and a slim lead to protect from the first leg – if Liverpool did not know it already, last night was about as far away from the riches and glamour of the Champions League as they could get, but to completely dismiss the Europa League as an important competition in their season would be wrong. Of course Hodgson’s claim that the Premier League should take priority is the correct one, but he said the same thing in his old job last season, and the competition is sure to provide a favourable platform for some of his squad members to perform, as they did last night and as they will later in the group stages. Whoever the Reds draw today, they will be top seeds.
That is certain, but who those members of Hodgson’s squad are is less so. Javier Mascherano will be sold before Tuesday’s transfer deadline – although the club are tiring of Barcelona and Inter’s tactics in attempting to secure the signature, Inter opening with a derisory bid of £6m plus Sulley Muntari. There is no way back for the Argentinean at Anfield however, not after last Monday night’s downing of tools forced the manager into a doomed change of personnel and tactics. Three and a half years after Rafael Benitez took him from being West Ham United’s understudy to Hayden Mullins to the Champions League final, his stock amongst Reds supporters – once so high – has never been lower, and almost all now want to see a quick sale to provide the Reds with some sort of transfer budget with which to strengthen. The same cannot be said of Kuyt. With Benitez still sniffing around his former favourite, Hodgson and last night the player himself have been at pains to point out that the ex-Reds boss will be unsuccessful with his pursuit, but as long as Kuyt’s agent Rob Jansen has a say, the Dutchman is likely to continue to be linked to the European champions. Never everyone’s cup of tea, Kuyt does have a happy knack of popping up with important goals – last night was just the latest – and there is no doubt that Liverpool would be a poorer club without him.
But they are pretty poor club now, financially speaking, and so the sale of Mascherano needs to be concluded as soon as possible in order to give Hodgson the funds to bring in the extra players that his squad so surely needs, although the arrival of left-back Paul Konchesky appears imminent. It is fair to say that the prospective signing of the 29-year-old from Fulham has not yet been met with the wildest of acclaim amongst most supporters, but Konchesky is an experienced, consistent, Premier League-proven left back, and Liverpool have not had one of those for a while. He should slot straight into the side, and with Hodgson no stranger to him, be able to provide a solid, if unspectacular presence at the back.
Elsewhere, take your pick from the raft of names linked to the Reds in recent weeks, although the most likely of those comes in the form of free-scoring 6”4’ Swedish forward Ola Toivonen, a player watched closely by both Hodgson and assistant manager Sammy Lee in recent weeks. The PSV Eindhoven frontman would make an interesting addition to the Reds squad, as would any forward at the moment, but none are likely to have been added in time for the resumption of Premier League action against West Brom at Anfield on Sunday. Hopefully the weather might be nicer for that one than it was last night, but supporters will hope that the result is the same. For now, the outlook seems good.