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 By Steven Kelly

Liverpool must respond to Manchester United glory in Europa League

There was a solitary moment of humour for Liverpool fans after Manchester United won the Europa League on Wednesday. It was when Jose Mourinho encouraged his players to hold up three fingers, indicating United had won a treble this season.

It was a tenuous claim which triggered Liverpool memories of their own treble in 2001, one derided for the most part by United supporters as "plastic" or even "Mickey Mouse" as one banner subtly described it.

At least Liverpool's included the FA Cup, not the Community Shield, which most fans regard as a one-off bauble handed to the winners of a preseason friendly.

Amusement soon turned back to concern and introspection. Liverpool began the season -- as they'd begun the previous 37 -- as England's most successful club. That boast is no longer valid. It belongs to their bitterest rivals. Soul searching was inevitable.

The club they'd overtaken in the late 1970s was Aston Villa, now drifting aimlessly in the middle of the Championship with their best days long gone. Is that the fate which awaits Liverpool?

It seems unlikely but until the Reds begin winning trophies again it's a question that's bound to get asked more often. They've won one in the past 11 years but they suffered a similar drought before. When Gerard Houllier's squad won their treble, it ended another fallow period that saw only two cups won in the 11 years before that.

Following the club's dominance of the 1970s and 1980s, such a drought was more painful than the current one. The euphoria which greeted Houllier's huge turnaround in fortunes sparked United fans' derision, their own classic treble of 1999 still fresh in the mind.

Intense rivalry isn't just about what your team does -- it's also about what the other team can't do. If they do manage to win something, it was probably fortuitous or meaningless anyway.

What Liverpool fans were jubilant about at the time wasn't simply the joy of success. It was also seeing a team prove itself ready for an assault on other, more substantial competitions.

This was a team which played every single game it was possible to. Every cup run went to the final, along with the 38-game league season which in itself resulted in third place and a crack at the Champions League. Liverpool fans were ebullient, convinced a bright future lay on the horizon.

There are obvious comparisons to Mourinho's team. Houllier also pointedly added the Community Shield and the European Super Cup to his list in a bizarre attempt to inflate an already impressive achievement.

They could also be boring, but by the very nature of knockout football proved difficult to beat. By building upon such a solid foundation, Houllier could go on and establish a new Anfield dynasty.

Sadly that failed to materialise but not until Liverpool had pushed Arsenal to an extraordinary finish in 2002, winning 15 of their last 16 matches to land the title. The Reds also would have reached a Champions League semifinal but for an astonishing collapse against Bayer Leverkusen.

Houllier's health issues may be what prevented him from taking Liverpool any further but in truth he never seemed fully conversant with the quality attacking football needed to take the step forwards. His successor Rafa Benitez came closer still to returning Liverpool to the summit of football.

Manchester United have overtaken Liverpool as England's most successful club in terms of trophies won.

Great football clubs must ensure they keep on improving. The odd decent season now and again simply won't suffice. Jurgen Klopp now faces a similar task. His continental predecessors built teams on a solid foundation of defence, whereas Klopp has begun to put together a team that on its day can be very exciting but is notoriously unstable.

Is it possible to graft defensive and tactical discipline onto such a side? The next season will prove whether it can be done. It's unlikely the German would be given time to rip up his plans and start again, were he inclined to do so -- which also seems extremely doubtful.

Houllier and Benitez followed a template already used by Bill Shankly just before Liverpool's dominant era truly began. His team in 1970-71 was full of new young players, equalling the defensive record of the time but scoring a shocking 42 goals in 42 league games.

They did prove stubborn opposition, reaching a UEFA Cup semifinal and the FA Cup final. Gradually, Liverpool embellished their style under Bob Paisley, building on Shankly's foundations.

By 1979 they were breaking the league points record, scoring 85 goals and conceding 16, playing breathtaking football. It had taken a decade but one still peppered with trophies.

It's unfair to say the Reds have given up on trying to win things. They've landed seven cups so far this century but also featured in five other losing finals while coming second in the league three times. It's not like they've simply vanished.

Perhaps United's success will finally goad the club into a long-awaited reawakening?

Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.


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