At the time of writing, Liverpool find themselves trading as the strong 9/4 favourites to lift this season’s Europa League trophy. Is their position as the competition’s biggest threat justified though? After all, they have only secured one European title since that famous 2006 night in Istanbul.
Answering the question in full requires looking at Liverpool’s form this season, their recent record in European matches and assessing the other strong contenders left in the competition. Only by doing that can we ascertain whether or not Liverpool are worthy and good value favourites for the 2023/24 Europe League.
Liverpool This Season
On the whole, it has been a very good first half of the season for Jurgen Klopp’s men. They find themselves firmly in contention for a title challenge and have also booked their place in the League Cup semi-final. With just one domestic defeat to their name at the time of writing, this being a highly controversial 2-1 loss to Tottenham, they are an extremely difficult team to beat.
This is particularly true when playing at Anfield. Their League Cup win over West Ham on 20th December ensured the Merseysiders would make it 10 months since they last lost in front of the home crowd. Anfield is certainly something of a fortress although there have been recent concerns about the atmosphere. This is something Klopp himself addressed following the West Ham win saying, “It’s the quietest crowd I’ve seen in this game”. Although the Europa League final will be played at a neutral ground, Liverpool will benefit if Anfield is in full voice in the earlier stages.
Despite Liverpool’s positive start to the season it is worth highlighting though how there is not always a strong link between a strong domestic campaign and European success. If you take a look at some of the most recent winners, you will see that they did not always thrive in their domestic league or cup yet managed to conquer the continent.
|Europa League Winner
This partly shows the unpredictable nature of a knockout tournament. Teams might struggle to show up consistently for a league season but for a handful of one-off affairs, it is a different matter. Some teams are simply adept at putting the form book to one side when it comes to these high-pressure knockout encounters.
Another consideration is that for many clubs, being competitive domestically and in Europe is a big ask. The extra matches and additional travelling that a long Europa League run requires can be the source of injury and fatigue. Should a club set European success as one of its main goals, it can often end up harming domestic performances as a result.
Liverpool are less likely to suffer this problem than most though given the strength they have available in their squad. Their 2-1 loss against Union Saint-Gilloise shows that Jurgen Klopp will not be able to name a completely second-string XI but he will not be forced to play a full-strength team at all times. When the German made six changes to the starting eleven for their League Cup clash with West Ham, the Reds still managed to cruise to an emphatic 5-1 win.
Liverpool will have their eyes on other silverware this season but the fact they have some great rotation options means they should be able to compete on multiple fronts. This is, of course, providing they avoid a major injury crisis which has already hit the likes of Newcastle, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham.
Liverpool in Europe
Looking at Liverpool’s record in Europe can both improve and weaken their claim of lifting this season’s Europa League trophy. On the one hand, the Merseysiders have lost four of their last five European finals. Admittedly, four of these finals have been in the Champions League not the Europa League but it is nevertheless not an overly promising record. Klopp’s personal record is no better as oversaw three of these defeats (plus the win) and he also lost his sole Champions League final in charge of Dortmund.
On the other hand, it does bode well for Liverpool that they have reached the last stage of Europe’s top club competition in three of the last six years. Additionally, it has usually taken one of Europe’s elite teams to eliminate them rather than some unfancied underdog. Across the last six years, the two teams responsible for Liverpool’s European exits are Real Madrid (x4) and Atletico.
It is the Champions League rather than the Europa League that typically hosts the very best teams in the continent but there can be exceptions. Whether it be following an unusually weak domestic performance the previous season or a sloppy group stage display that results in a third-place finish, talented teams can end up playing Europa Football.
Bayer Leverkusen (11/2)
In the case of second-favourites Bayer Leverkusen (11/2) they have found themselves as genuine contenders following some very rapid improvements. Manager Xabi Alonso has had a transformative effect and this has resulted in his side spending the Christmas break top of the Bundesliga table. As well as this, his side has looked extremely strong in the Europa League too, winning all their matches and registering a +16 goal difference. Admittedly, they had an easy group but they deserve credit nonetheless.
AC Milan (10/1)
Leverkusen have not touched European silverware since 1988 though, so guiding them to continental success would be a massive achievement. A club with a greater pedigree on the European stage are third favourites AC Milan (10/1) who drop down from the Champions League. Given the extremely tough nature of their Champions League group, finishing third with eight points was a perfectly decent achievement. Dropouts do not have the best record in the Europa League mind you, having only won three of the previous 10 finals (runners-up six times).
This underwhelming record to one side, Milan’s competitive Champions League performances and solid domestic form make them a credible threat to Liverpool. Elsewhere in the betting, we have familiar foes in Brighton (14/1) and West Ham (16/1). The latter has an awful record against Liverpool but Brighton have tended to put up a real fight. We know how good the Seagulls can be on their day but their lack of European experience is a concern especially as they showed some group stage wobbles.
Finally, we ought to mention José Mourinho’s Roma (16/1). Domestically, they are not excelling but they haven’t for some time. Despite this, they won the Europa Conference League in 2022 and reached the Europa League final in 2023. Mourinho is something of a cup specialist and he is not a man you would particularly want to face in a final, even if his team is not overly intimidating on paper.
Nothing Is Ever Certain
In our view, Liverpool are the strongest team in the competition and they have the added benefit of not having to play the knockout play-off round. Nothing is ever certain in a cup competition but the Reds undoubtedly look deserving of their favourite tag. Does a 9/4 make for a tempting bet though? This is more debatable given there are some decent threats left remaining and it only takes one bad game for the Reds to face elimination.