Rodgers sends young guns to face Young Boys
Evidence of the Europa League’s identity crisis manifested itself at Anfield today when Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, selected a young and inexperienced squad for the trip to face Young Boys of Switzerland tomorrow night.
International players such as Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Glen Johnson, Joe Allen, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Martin Kelly all remained at Melwood, the Liverpool training ground, as Rodgers cast an eye towards the Premier League match at home to Manchester United on Sunday.
It would be wrong to say that Rodgers is not taking the Europa League seriously, but the list of Liverpool players who flew out to Bern today suggests that European football is not the priority at Anfield. Not yet, at least.
Dani Pacheco, Nuri Sahin, Oussama Assaidi, Samed Yesil, Suso, Andre Wisdom, Conor Coady, Adam Morgan, Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson formed part of the most inexperienced squad that a Liverpool manager has ever selected for a European match.
Rodgers is taking a risk but, then, he would also have been taking a risk had he selected a full-strength squad for Switzerland. Against Hearts in the previous Europa League round, Liverpool were at near full strength and they laboured to the draw that secured a narrow aggregate victory. In the next match, at home to Arsenal in the Premier League, Liverpool looked less than fresh and they lost 2-0.
Rodgers cannot afford a repeat, not least because Liverpool have yet to secure a Premier League victory this season. Just as important is the intensity of a match against Manchester United, which will require the strongest Liverpool team possible.
It is a reflection of the modern game that Rodgers has taken such a decision. With five European Cup successes and three Uefa Cup successes, Liverpool are the joint-third most successful club in the history of European competition (behind Real Madrid and AC Milan and tied with Barcelona). Their mastery in Europe owed everything to solid foundations and of never fielding a weakened team, not even in early-round matches against teams like Crusaders of Belfast (1976-77), Oulun Palloseura (1980-81), and Odense Boldklub (1983-84).
Now, however, we exist in the Twenty-first Century. Raisons d'être have changed.
Wisely, perhaps, Rodgers is adopting a policy of deferred gratification: risking Liverpool’s place in the Europa League in the hope that it will make the team better equipped to finish high enough to play in the Uefa Champions League next season. Auguries are not good – Rodgers’ team have lost two and drawn two of their opening four Premier League matches this season – but Liverpool have revived their season in the past from similarly problematical situations. They were third from bottom at one point in 1981-82 but still won the title.
Liverpool supporters will be particularly interested in seeing how Nuri Sahin, the Real Madrid midfield player, performs tomorrow night. The Turkey international, on loan from Real, is pushing for a place in the starting line-up for the match against United. There will be much curiosity also in Oussama Assaidi, the left winger, who moved to Anfield for £3million form Heerenveen of The Netherlands and is likely to make his debut.
There will be familiar faces in the shape of Jamie Carragher, the defender, who will partner Sebastian Coates, the Uruguay international, at the back. Jose Enrique, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing also likely to play, while Raheem Sterling, impressive so far this season, is likely to make an appearance as a second-half substitute.