Sunday 4 December 2016

Steven Gerrard: It's make or break, with a hangover in store if Liverpool fail tonight

Steven Gerrard

Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30

St Jakob-Park is ready to welcome Liverpool for tonight's Europa League final against Sevilla (PA)
St Jakob-Park is ready to welcome Liverpool for tonight's Europa League final against Sevilla (PA)

There are two obvious pathways facing Liverpool as they prepare for the Europa League final in Basel, and they go in vastly different directions.

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Beating Sevilla would mean a European trophy, a place in history for all those players and the sense they are at the beginning of a new era under one of the greatest coaches of his generation.

There would be such a buzz around the club and the city, the lads and supporters would be counting down the days until pre-season and all the talk in August would be about what was next for Jurgen Klopp's side - a possible title challenge. With the calibre of player they could attract, and Champions League qualification, there would be real confidence around.

Then there is the darker road, the one none of us who love Liverpool want to contemplate. It is a second final defeat in a matter of months, disrupting the feelgood factor achieved in securing that flight to Switzerland, undermining the meaning of those notable wins over Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Villarreal.

Morale

Not just another year without a trophy, but no European competition at all next season. That would have an impact on the quality of players Klopp could attract, the financial rewards for the club and the morale of the squad.

Despite all the positives that would be taken from getting so far, there would be a hangover. There always is when you lose a game of this magnitude.

The difference between a memorable season and one that could take a long time to get over is immense. This game feels a bit all or nothing for the season.

I know the contrasting emotions well, winning the UEFA Cup in 2001 and the Champions League in 2005, but suffering after losing to AC Milan in Athens in 2007.

Those European wins are among the highlights of my career, but they are also tinged with regret.

In both 2001 and 2005, I came off the pitch saying they would be the catalysts for a new era of success. We were given the perfect platform from which to go on but we never took it, especially after Istanbul.

If you had told me when I was on the open-top bus tour holding the trophy after our fifth European Cup success that in the next 11 years Liverpool would win only the FA Cup and League Cup, I would not have believed it.

I am not writing off everything that has happened since. We came very close to winning far more than we did, losing finals, semi-finals and going very close to the Premier League title under Rafael Benitez and Brendan Rodgers.

For a long time after 2005, we re-established our name in Europe, reaching No 1 in the UEFA rankings. There were great times, great performances, but there is no getting away from the fact we did not win as much as we expected in the aftermath of Dortmund in 2001 and Istanbul in 2005.

In 2001, we had a fantastic team who needed only the addition of a couple of top-class players, but we bought badly and it went wrong.

By 2005, it was slightly different. We had a recently appointed, top-class manager who won the biggest trophy in his first season, but there was more work to be done to get to the level of a side competing for a title and there were underlying problems at the club. We were trying to sort out the stadium situation and it was well known Liverpool were looking for new ownership.

Two years later, we were back in the Champions League final in Athens. Those new owners - Tom Hicks and George Gillett - had taken over with their stadium plans and were promising the biggest signings.

Soon after that, it all started to unravel at the top and what should have been another period of success did not materialise.

Nine years on from the last European final, it feels Liverpool are in as stable a position as I can remember in a while, with everything in place to build on success in a way we did not quite manage on those previous occasions.

There is a big difference between the Europa League final and the Champions League final but going into this game the foundations are back in place.

There are similarities to both the 2001 and 2005 season, but there are also notable differences. There is a manager who understands how to win in Europe, just like Gerard Houllier and Benitez, but the ownership situation is more stable and, from next season, Liverpool will be in that 54,000 stadium. The club can kick on.

The difficult part is getting over the line and winning the first trophy. The manager is a key part of that and Klopp has instilled some real belief into this squad.

The Europa League can be the starting point. The addition of the Champions League qualifying place for the winners was a great idea.

Over the years, finishing fourth in the Premier League has come to mean so much that teams were prepared to sacrifice the Europa League and play youngsters or back-up players. It demeaned the Europa League.

Focus

This season, Klopp opted to make changes for some Premier League games to focus on Europe.

In terms of Liverpool's chances, I firmly believe that, if they play their best football, they can win tonight.

The difference in quality between the Premier League and La Liga is not what many suggest. You have three world-class teams in Spain - Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid - but the rest do not make it a competition.

Liverpool demonstrated that the gap in quality between the two leagues - beyond that top three - is exaggerated when they outplayed and at times outclassed Villarreal.

Sevilla's main threats come from Kevin Gameiro and Ever Banega and Liverpool will also need to have a plan to deal with Yevhen Konoplyanka. He has pace, dribbling ability and an eye for goal. The key is to keep him on his left foot.

For all that, I am sure the Spanish side will have concerns about the way Liverpool have gone about their work in Europe. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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