Liverpool suddenly seem a smart Europa League bet after cup exit
Despite the bitter nature of their FA Cup exit to West Ham on Tuesday night, the lightening of Liverpool’s load may actually be a blessing in disguise, especially where their Champions League qualification ambitions are concerned.
A flurry of draining FA Cup replays to follow a double-legged Capital One Cup semi-final that went the whole hog, clearly took its toll on Jurgen Klopp’s squad, and quite possibly the German’s appendix (now removed).
The last thing the doctor would have predictably ordered therefore, other than Klopp attending the West Ham game so soon after surgery, was the potential to clog up a saturated fixture schedule even more.
The Premier League avenue looks closed
Having collected only one of the last six available points in the Premier League, dropping 12 off the top-four pace in the process, it will have dawned on the Reds boss that efforts to attain a Champions League spot next season are best spent elsewhere.
Although the Europa League is still a 32-team knees-up at this point with no glimpse of the finishing line in sight, the golden carrot it dangles – the winners gain automatic group-stage entry to the Champions League – means Klopp cannot let the chance pass by.
The Reds are third favourites for the Europa League
Liverpool, who are cast as 11/1 shots for glory alongside arch rivals Manchester United, do at least have a favourable draw against Bundesliga strugglers Augsburg, a team familiar to Klopp, with the added advantage of the home leg last.
Aside from potential collisions with United or Tottenham down the line, there are plenty of ominous opponents likely to still be lurking in the latter rounds, not least perennial Europa winners Sevilla and Klopp’s former charges and tournament favourites, Borussia Dortmund (13/2).
Having negotiated his way to the Champions League final with BvB a few years ago, the competition should hold little fear for the Anfield chief though, especially with the coast cleared somewhat by exiting the FA Cup.
After a league trip to bottom side Aston Villa next Klopp can give the Europa League tie his full concentration, with no intervening weekend fixture splitting the two legs against Augsburg.
Return of important players at a crucial time
The timely return to fitness of some key players can only be a boon to Liverpool’s chances too.
Daniel Sturridge’s extended Hammers cameo gave notice of the talents the Reds have been sorely missing up front.
Alongside Philippe Coutinho, whose inventive finish took the game to extra time, Sturridge’s and Divock Origi’s availability means a cure to Liverpool’s lack of cutting edge could be at hand.
Meanwhile, Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel should both be back in contention for defence-strengthening comebacks before the trip to Germany next Thursday.
The League Cup final is the bonus game which immediately follows the continental tie, but whether the Reds win or lose that, the remainder of the campaign can focus on Europa League success.
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