The perception in some quarters is that Liverpool won’t be taking tomorrow’s second leg of their Europa League play-off against Hearts all that seriously, given that they already hold a first-leg lead and have a huge Barclays Premier League game against Arsenal to prepare for less than 72 hours later.
However, Stewart Downing, the £20 million Liverpool and England midfielder, swiftly moved to trash any such notion. Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, Downing insisted the tie is nowhere near over and that Liverpool won’t be treating tomorrow’s Anfield showdown as any sort of dead-rubber formality.
As someone who has visited Anfield with a smaller club in his Middlesbrough days, Downing knows just how much inspiration teams can take when they touch the “This Is Anfield” sign on their way out to the fabled turf in front of the Kop. Some, of course, can be overwhelmed by the occasion, but, after witnessing their gallant showing at Tynecastle last weekend, Downing is expecting Hearts to puff out their chests and produce another big performance.
“There’s no way we’ll be treating the tie as over,” he insisted. “It was the same against Gomel in the last round. We won 1-0 away and they came to our place and made it tough and could have nicked themselves an early goal, so it’s definitely not over. Hearts will bring a big following and will have a real go at us so we need to go out and do the job again. For the Hearts players, it will be the biggest game of their lives so they’ll raise their game. You never know who’s watching in terms of scouts and managers, so they’ll see it as a chance to go to Anfield and raise their profile. They’ll also want to do well for their club, so it’s going to be a hard game. Every game is a big game when you play for Liverpool, so I’m sure the manager will play a strong team again. We’ve not got that big a squad where we could change it all that much anyway, to be honest.”
With the Europa League widely mocked down south – Liverpool were subjected to taunts of “Thursday night, Channel Five” when they dropped out of the top four and into the Europa a few seasons back – there is always a feeling that the big clubs could do without the distraction and would sooner get knocked out than embark on what would be a marathon run to the final.
However, while Downing knows that the Premier League is the bread and butter and that the Champions League is the Holy Grail, he insists that the Europa League will always be a competition special to him. Having played his part in Middlesbrough’s sensational run to the final in 2006, and then seen the two Manchester clubs take the competition seriously when they dropped out of the Champions League last term, there’s no chance you’ll find the amiable Teessider joining the clamour to bash Europe’s second-string tournament. In fact, he wants to be in Amsterdam contesting the final next May.
“The atmosphere at Tynecastle last week just shows what this competition’s all about,” he explained. “A lot of people diss it off and say it’s not as big as this tournament or that tournament, but it’s a European competition. You could see that it was massive for Hearts, and we want to win every competition we play in, as you could see by the squad we took up last week [12 of those in the 18-man squad at Tynecastle were also listed against Man City on Sunday].
“You get good Spanish teams going far in this competition every year. I played in it with Boro when we got to the final and it was brilliant. You’re playing against top players, particularly when you get to the later stages and the Champions League drop-outs come in.”
Even for a seasoned English Premier League player, Downing, 28, who came on as a second-half substitute at left-back at Tynecastle, was impressed with the way Hearts played and the incredible wall of noise created by the home support on what will go down as one of the Gorgie club’s most memorable nights of recent times.
“We brought a pretty strong team last week because we expected a hard game, and that’s how it turned out,” he said. “Hearts made it really tough for us and we needed an own goal to beat them on the night. They passed it well and got forward when they could, and it was only a bit of luck that got us the goal. Even when we scored, they kept coming at us – that’s the type of team they are, so it was a good win for us. We weren’t surprised by how intense it was. We’d watched lots of videos and Charlie Adam had told us before that it was a good ground to play in and told us what to expect.
“The atmosphere struck me early on. You could see the crowd building before the game, but I was surprised at just how loud it was when the game started. For a tight little ground, it generates a hell of a lot of noise. It was very, very loud and you could see the Hearts players responded to it.
“The ground reminds me of the Riverside [Middlesbrough’s ground]. When we went on our run to the final, we played against some good teams and were underdogs in a lot of games, but the fans helped us a lot. You could see the fans play a big part in the way Hearts play.”