For Spurs, their Europa League campaign continues Thursday against Fiorentina. For Liverpool, another campaign begins at Anfield against Besiktas. Both are in similar league positions, form, and a similar predicament – how seriously do we take the Europa League when we could still finish in the top four? It’s the tightrope that both Brendan Rodgers and Mauricio Pochettino must walk carefully, lest they lose their balance and derail two campaigns at once.
The race for the top four this season is about as wide open as it has ever been. Five teams are competing for two spots, and any two of them could finish third and four with barely a whisper of dissent among the crowd. Which two will likely depend on how form, injuries and fixtures play out, and both Liverpool and Spurs are behind the eight-ball. Their Europa League draw against Fiorentina, especially the away leg, comes as Spurs are preparing for their first Cup Final in six years against Chelsea. Liverpool’s two Besiktas games come before critical league matches against Southampton and Manchester City, both of which could well decide Liverpool’s top four fate.
Before, the Europa League was not much more than a nuisance, even if winning did claim a trophy. Now, with the Champions League carrot dangling tantalizingly close, both teams must decide which method of entry into the Champions League is not only easier, but less taxing. The Europa League is a lottery, and depending on the draw both teams could be in for much tougher Thursday tests than they would bargain for. But the Premier League is easily filled with pitfalls and traps along the way, especially if the teams expend plenty on the Thursday before their Sunday encounters.
Tottenham will be familiar with the squad rotation that is needed to compete successfully at home and abroad on the Thursday-Sunday turnaround. Liverpool will be too, but from a more distant past (two years ago against Anzhi Makhachkala, in fact). Both teams should have squads deep enough to be able to successfully rotate for two games in four days. But as their recent duel at Anfield shows, it’s quite easy on paper to play two games in four days, but much harder in reality.
Both ties are also difficult. Fiorentina are not the top-flight of Italian soccer, but they do have a fantastic midfield that will cause Tottenham problems, even if their back four and strikers leave plenty to be desired. Besiktas have already caused havoc for two English teams already this season, and the travel to Istanbul cannot be written off. While Liverpool may have fond memories of Istanbul (yes, it is the same stadium), Besiktas are atop the Turkish League right now and will be a difficult opponent even if Rodgers wants to play his full strength squad.
The questions are easy to ask. Pinning down the answers to those questions is the hard part. We’ll find out on Thursday how Pochettino and Rodgers want to attack the same goal, and whether they want to do it in different ways.
Whoever answers the Champions League question the best might find themselves in it at the end of the season.
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