The sheer emotion involved in Liverpool’s incredible 4-3 comeback against Borussia Dortmund – the miracle of Anfield – may be clouding my judgement, but last Thursday night felt like a watershed moment in the apathetic affair between the Europa League and English football.
Since being dubbed a “killer” by then-Tottenham Hotspur boss Harry Redknapp in 2011, Europe’s second-best tournament has been treated as exactly that by its Premier League participants; an unnecessary add-on to English football’s chaotic scheduling, an unwelcome diversion from progression domestically and an unjustifiable drain on resources. In a nutshell, unless you actually lift the title, the 19 games required to reach the final are a dreaded burden.
Premier League clubs only ever truly overlook those criticisms when other competitions go awry – a last-ditch attempt to stop a season passing the club and the fans by, like pulling the ugly sister at 3am outside the kebab shop after hours of unhappy hunting on the dance floor.
Chelsea’s Europa League triumph in 2013 remains the classic example, not least because they’re the only English club to win the title in the last 15 years – harking all the way back to Liverpool 2001 final win over Deportivo Alaves (coincidentally enough held at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion) – during a season which had seen them unexpectedly eliminated from the Champions League group stages and resultantly appoint the maligned Rafa Benitez on an interim basis.
There is a notably unglamorous feel to the Europa League. Held on the most unnatural night of the week to watch a game of football and previously exiled to the extremities of Freeview’s ITV4, up until this season, unforgettable moments were few and far between – at least from the perspective of the Premier League audience.
But Liverpool’s progression through the tournament this year may be the first step in changing all that. Their quarter-final tie with Manchester United, an episode of English football’s most traditional rivalry on a European stage, forced Premier League fans to take a vested interest, and both legs were intoxicating contests, even if the quality of football – especially on United’s part – left something to be desired.
More crucially, last Thursday at Anfield will be remembered as one of the greatest European nights in Liverpool’s recent history – an enormous statement within itself – and not least because of the final scoreline. The endless array of captivating subplots; the 27th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the association between the two clubs through Jurgen Klopp and their shared anthem, the recent death of a fan at a Dortmund match; created an emotional atmosphere pre-kick-off, as endless choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone echoed around all four corners of Anfield before both sets of fans impeccably observed a minute of silence.
The juxtaposition between full volume, made even louder by the bassy tones of the Dortmund fanbase, and complete silence was truly moving and in many ways, a precursor of the enthralling match about to take place – Dortmund’s rip-roaring start and lethal edge on the counter-attack contrasting with the Reds’ dominance of possession and second-half comeback.
For the aforementioned reasons, and more, the night will go down in Anfield folklore. Who would have thought we’d be saying that about a Europa League fixture when Liverpool were held to a scoreless draw with Sion back in October? And appreciation for the game reverberated throughout the UK; the final whistle became the most tweeted-about moment of 2016, with over 56,000 tweets per minute, whilst Dejan Lovren’s winner just minutes earlier ranked in third – sandwiching Adele’s Brit award from February. Once again, who could have predicted a Europa League game would receive such attention on social media back at the start of the season?
Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe Liverpool’s 4-3 thriller will single-handedly change the priorities of other clubs with immediate effect. For those set to finish in the Premier League’s top four, the Europa League represents essentially a different road to the same end of Champions League qualification, albeit with the added incentive of silverware in the process. Likewise, it’s still an enormous drain for any team lacking depth and the correlation between Europa League participation and underwhelming domestic campaigns remains impossible to ignore.
Nonetheless, last Thursday felt like a real turning point and if it doesn’t convince managers to begin prioritising the Europa League, it may at least convince them to give the tournament more of a chance in the hope of unearthing an evening as emotionally driven, as entertaining and as enthralling as Liverpool and Dortmund’s.
After all, although it may not be remembered in the history books with the same clarity of silverware, the Reds created a match no witness, whether viewing from Anfield, the pub of the comfort of their own living rooms, will ever forget. I’m sure every manager in the business would like that opportunity and Liverpool have proved that under the right circumstances, the floodlight football and continental competition of the Europa League is capable of providing it.