Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Europa League

For the first time since Manchester United finished bottom of their Champions League group in the 2005-6 season, the Premier League will be represented by less than the full compliment of United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in this season’s last 16. This week, Liverpool got the away win they needed at Debrecen, but slip out of the Champions League thanks to a 1-0 win for Fiorentina at home to already-qualified Lyon.

It is tempting, in this new age of English dominance in Europe that has seen Premier League teams make up three of the four Champions League semi-finalists for three consecutive seasons (albeit only producing a winner once), to view this as some sort of disaster – both for Liverpool and for the English contingent at Europe’s top table. I’m not so sure it is.

Liverpool, guaranteed to finish third in their group with a game left to play, will now enter the newly-rebranded UEFA Europa League, previously the UEFA Cup. This will no doubt be reported as Liverpool suffering the ignominy of having to play in a “pointless”, devalued competition that will only make it harder for them to perform as well as they should in the Premier League (though they seem to be making things difficult enough for themselves as it is). And, as something of an insult to teams like Valencia, Roma, Hamburg, Villareal, Benfica, Werder Bremen, last year’s winners Shakhtar Donetsk and, of course, Merseyside rivals Everton, they will likely be tipped as favourites to win the competition.

Apart from the fact that having a high-profile English club involved in the tournament’s knockout stages will certainly improve the Europa League’s viewing figures in the UK (the sort of thing I’m sure UEFA will have hoped would happen when they re-launched the competition) just as the still-highly-possible entry of Inter Milan would in Italy or Bayern Munich might in Germany, does it deserve to be so much maligned as a legitimate European competition?

At a time when the gulf between the richest clubs and those unlikely to ever break into Champions League qualification spots is wider than ever before – and remembering that no team from outside the now-defunct G14 group of Europe’s ‘elite’ clubs has ever won the Champions League – surely the Europa League can be as exciting, unpredictable and as exotic as the European Cup is and was in bygone days. The team names are weirder, the cities more obscure, the players more appreciative of the occasion, the matches more memorable in the long-run – for many teams making an appearance it will be their first trip into Europe or their first for a lifetime; and most of their fans will tend to believe it’s probably their last.

The romance that many curmudgeonly, nostalgic pundits lament the loss of in the big-money Champions League is, I think, still very much alive in the Europa League. Teams who are barely known outside their own countries can have a good run in their division or cup one year and face the prospect of thrilling away trips to clubs in bigger, more high-profile leagues, or – especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – a chance to face old rivals from other nations.

Many of these are, to me at least, if not in football terms then politically and historically intriguing, despite those who may scoff at the apparently low level of competiton. For example, this season has seen Croatia’s Slavija Istocno Sarajevo take on MFK Kosice of Slovakia (Kosice won 5-1 on aggregate, incidentally), while Polonia Warsaw of Poland met Dutch side NAC Breda. Exotic ties like these just don’t happen in the Champions League.

And the competition is more balanced – and so less predictable. Picking a UEFA Cup winner at the beginning of a season (or even halfway through) is far harder than in the Champions League, where the eventual winner will almost certainly come from a pool of four or five teams. Sure there are favourites, and the fixture list throws up its brutal mismatches – Roma hammering Gent of Belgium 10-2 on aggregate this season springs to mind – but none are ever as tedious as in the Champions League. The gulf between the sides likely to end up in the last sixteen and those destined to return to the drudgery of their minor European leagues is so huge that the competition is, often, barely worth watching before Christmas. Other than maybe the Barca/Inter/Kazan/Kiev group this season, there’s barely a shock in sight going into the knockout stages.

So maybe Europe’s second competition is something of a glimpse back in time, to the days of the European Cup of the 60s and 70s, when no one nation dominated and any side could win. The European Cup that Celtic won and Nottingham Forest retained. Maybe. Either way, it’s a shame to denigrate it so much and suggested that winning it “doesn’t matter”.

To suggest that Benitez’s Liverpool wouldn’t be ecstatic to be lifting a European trophy at the end of this season and therefore qualifying for the Champions League next season and playing in the showpiece UEFA Super Cup match, is ridiculous. Similarly, how much would David Moyes love to bring Everton their first continental silverware since the 1985 Cup Winners’ Cup victory over Rapid Vienna? A quarter of a century is a long time to wait for prominence on the European stage – that it’s not going to be the European Cup they could be lifting is probably more a matter of finance than football. It certainly won’t matter too much to the trophy-starved fans.

I love the Champions League, as I made clear on this blog earlier in the season, but I think the way it completely overshadows the Europa League is unfortunate. Rather than constantly expanding the Champions League to include teams and leagues that the European giants will simply walk over (which for me is the truly pointless part of UEFA’s current strategy) giving the “lesser” tournament a bit of genuine support could really help. There is a great deal of affection around for the long-gone Cup Winners’ Cup, as this was really seen to be a trophy worth winning. The Europa League could well go on to be that too, if the governing body can keep themselves from messing around with its format for a couple of seasons. While no one wants endless group stages and seventeen two-legged rounds meaning beleaguered clubs with tiny squads are forced to play 200 matches a season, it’s a shame that, as a tournament, it’s so easily dismissed.

The fact that the mostly-empty 20,000 seat Bulgarian Army Stadium where I sat to watch CSKA Sofia play Sliven in October wasn’t even big enough to host the Europa League tie with Fulham a few weeks earlier (the 38,000 or so crowd packed into the nearby Vasil Levski National Stadium instead) should be enough of an example: to many, this “pointless” trophy does really matter.

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