Liverpool’s defence of their European title is already underway, with the Reds half-way through their second qualifying round. Tomorrow sees the draw for the third qualifying round, and assuming Liverpool complete the job in the second leg next week, they could be drawn against local rivals Everton.
Everton’s boss David Moyes is not keen on the idea of playing the European Champions. Liverpool are seeded in the draw, Everton are not. Everton have no recent European history so do not have enough "points" to be seeded. Liverpool have been classed as a countryless team though, meaning that they can be drawn against any other English team. Any other unseeded English team that is. With Arsenal and Chelsea already qualified, and Manchester United seeded, this leaves only Everton as the possible English opponents for the Reds.
Many cynics feel that UEFA will ensure that the draw is fixed to pit Everton against Liverpool in the next round, and thus ensure that the Group stages still only have four English teams in. UEFA will not be fixing the draw, but the chances of the two teams drawing each other is certainly a big possibility.
Moyes made no secret that the draw worries him, saying: "I’m concerned about the draw, definitely. I’ve got clear concerns about what might happen. Of course the decision as to who is seeded or not is nothing to do with us. We can’t influence who is seeded and who is not, but I do think that it’s wrong that two clubs from the same country – the same city even – could be drawn against each other in European competition at this stage."
The controversy over who should get into Europe will not end easily. UEFA rules were intended to be taken in such a way that Everton would have been dropped into the UEFA in place of European Champions Liverpool. The wording was such that the English FA had the final say on which of the two should be allowed to qualify, so UEFA made a one-off change for this season, to allow both teams in. From now on if the same situation arises the team in Liverpool’s position would qualify, the team in Everton’s position would be in the UEFA Cup. More to the point, the team in Liverpool’s position would actually go straight into the group stages rather than the qualifying rounds, so the combined decsions of both UEFA and the FA have left Liverpool with six games more than they should have had.
Like Liverpool, Everton haven’t yet qualified for the Champions League. Both teams have qualified for the chance to qualify. Everton’s boss is having a good moan though anyway: "You qualify for the Champions League in order to play teams from another country, not your local rivals. You don’t usually expect to get one from your own country, let alone your own city, but there is only one club which is exposed to the fact that Liverpool have not been granted country protection, and that’s Everton. That’s a fact."
As we say, Everton would not be in the qualifiers had UEFA’s new rules been in place, or had the FA taken the rules in the spirit they were written originally (and interpreted by the Spanish FA). Most neutrals would probably admit that the rules were a mess, and that both teams have as much right as each other to expect to be in the competition. UEFA’s compromise means that both Merseyside clubs could face each other, but surely this is better than one of the teams being excluded already.
In many ways it could be argued that Everton’s best chance of qualifying would be if they were to face Liverpool. Liverpool may have overcome the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and Chelsea in last seasons run to victory in the competition, but playing Everton is a different prospect altogether. It’s a cliché, but the formbook goes out of the window in a local derby. Everton’s alternative opponents include Inter, Glasgow Rangers, Panathanaikos, Sporting Lisbon, Monaco, and Ajax. If Celtic manage to overcome their 5-0 drubbing last night in the second leg they could be an opponent of Everton’s. Liverpool are certainly beatable by Everton, although European referees would perhaps not give as much leeway for the crunching tackles often seen in those games.
Liverpool would probably prefer to face the likes of Slavia Prague, Real Betis, Udinese or Wisla Krakow in the next round – it means travelling, but Liverpool’s performances against European opposition last season were by far their best.
If UEFA were in the business of fixing the draw, they might choose a match-up between Liverpool and Slavia Prague. The Czechs are upset at losing their seeding at the expense of Liverpool. Their general manager, Vladimir Leska complained: "We repeat again that we have nothing against the inclusion of Liverpool into the Champions League. The only thing we want is that Slavia is not harmed by this." If Liverpool and Slavia are drawn together then the issue of seeding is irrelevant.
Liverpool’s captain isn’t so bothered about Liverpool drawing Everton. Rather than being bitter about things (Moyes is still fuming about missing out on Liverpool’s new midfielder Momo Sissoko) Stevie Gerrard thinks a European derby match would be exciting: "I’m sure it’d be a great occasion if we did draw Everton in the next round but I’m sure if you asked both sides, we’d prefer to avoid each other at this stage. It’d be brilliant to see both clubs in the group stages but it’d be sod’s law to draw each other on Friday and if it does happen, they’d be two fantastic games to look forward to. As a player, you want to play in big games and they wouldn’t come much bigger than Liverpool and Everton playing off for a place in the Champions League group stages."
Luis Figo seems to be ready to dismiss his chances of a move to Anfield. Liverpool won’t increase their offer, Real won’t increase their offer of a pay-off, and Figo looks happy to stay in Spain until the end of his contract. He was widely quoted as saying about the move to the European Champions: "I don’t think there’s any chance. Things have stopped, so there is nothing more to say about that. It’s nice to hear that big clubs are interested in me, but all I want is to play football and to play for Real Madrid. If I don’t have a chance to do that, I will have to move, but I don’t want to play for another club, just for Real Madrid.”
Rick Parry is certain to be in attendance at the Champions League draw tomorrow in Nyon, and will no doubt be asked about Liverpool’s moves for Figo and a central defender.