Continental capers from Scandinavia to the Med
Blogger and FourFourTwo contributor Ben McAleer explains why fans of this year's Premier League representatives in the Europa League should relish their team's involvement...
It’s sometimes difficult for fans to get excited by the Europa League.
The long journeys to the far reaches of Eastern Europe for a Thursday evening match against a team some will have never heard of, let alone be able to spell their name.
The competition suffers for being so regularly compared to its more sexy and popular cousin, the Champions League, and as such is seen almost as the Capital One Cup of Europe.
In recent seasons, clubs have began to field under-strength teams, instead preferring to focus their efforts on domestic competitions. This is particularly true of clubs from England.
Last season alone, Tottenham crashed out of a relatively weak group thanks largely to fielding under-strength teams in their away fixtures; Birmingham City also faltered at the group stages for similar reasons, while Tony Pulis sent what was effectively a Stoke reserve side to Valencia for the second leg of their last-32 tie, having already lost the home leg 1-0.
Pulis admitted the competition had been a distraction. It certainly seemed to be one they struggled to come to terms with – the Potters lost the four Premier League matches that followed their first four Europa League group stage ties.
"Ah but could they win on a February night in Stoke?" Yes.
Manchester City and Manchester United dropped into last year’s competition after a poor showing in the Champions League, but they too failed to navigate their way into the quarterfinals, eliminated by Sporting CP and Athletic Bilbao respectively.
Two such big hitters appearing in the competition made for improved viewing in England, and although it didn’t last long it was enough to convince ITV to gazump Five when it came to negotiating broadcast rights for the 2012/13 competition.
By the end of last season, they will have been glad they did. The three sides flying the flag for England in this season’s instalment – Spurs, Liverpool and Newcastle United – are all clubs with traditionally strong support.
Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has great affection for the competition, having won it with Porto in 2010/11. Speaking ahead of his new club’s Group J opener against Lazio – a battle of England and Italy's fourth-placed finishers – the Portuguese said of the tournament: “It's full of history and different winners. It doesn't generate financial advantages for the clubs in it, but it generates emotions when you win it.”
The 34-year-old has a point from both perspectives. Few teams can expect to turn a profit thanks to their involvement in the Europa League unless they win it, but an opportunity to pick up some silverware isn’t to be sniffed at.
1984: Spurs celebrate winning the UEFA Cup
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew didn’t necessarily echo the sentiments of his Spurs counterpart, saying ahead of the second leg of his team’s play-off round victory over Greek side Atromitos: “These are great opportunities for them [fringe players] to show their stuff. If we were fortunate enough to get to the later stages of the competition, then the profile of it would rise, and so would the standard of our team.”
1969: Newcastle celebrate winning UEFA Cup forerunner the Fairs Cup
Pardew may not yet be prepared to risk his key first-teamers, but is
at least insinuating he is hopeful of reaching the latter stages with
his current crop that are looking to prove a point.
Liverpool’s Brendan Rodgers made his position clear during the Reds’ 5-3 win over Young Boys two weeks ago, having taken a largely inexperienced squad to Switzerland, and returning with all three points.
Liverpool celebrate wins in 1976 and 2001
Fans can understand the need to field weakened teams in the Europa League, especially if, as Tottenham and Newcastle did, they came close to securing a Champions League berth last year.
Regardless, it is an opportunity to add some silverware to the trophy cabinet, often for clubs starved of regular honours. Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao fans certainly enjoyed their clubs’ respective runs to last year’s final.
Much coveted Athletic striker Fernando Llorente even went as far as to claim helping the Basque side to the Bucharest showpiece was a better feeling than picking up a World Cup winners’ medal with Spain two years earlier.
After all, the team who lift the trophy at the Amersterdam Arena on May 15th won’t have had an easy ride. Inter, Marseille, Napoli, Sporting, Lyon, Leverkusen and big-spending Anzhi Makhachkala join last year’s two finalists (and 38 others) in the group stages. On top of that, there are still eight teams who will drop down from the Champions League into the last 32.
Nevertheless, English teams still have a substantially greater chance of picking up the trophy next year. Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs are all within the top 10 favourites to win the Europa League and with the players available to Rodgers, Pardew and Villas-Boas it’s hardly surprising.
The latter has insisted he will play a strong team throughout the competition, a decision which has been welcomed by fans of the North London side. They believe Spurs have a genuine opportunity to advance from Group J and make an honest attempt for the silverware.
Pardew may not have fielded a number of his first-teamers during their recent draw with Martimo, but the Magpies manager has insisted that during the lifespan of his recently signed eight-year contract, he wants to pick up silverware.
While Rodgers appears to have also decided against starting his bigger names for the time being – and you can understand his apprehensiveness given Liverpool’s sluggish start to the new season – the Reds still find themselves among the favourites to lift the trophy.
The fact English football has three teams capable of navigating their way to the final is a testament to the strength not only of the Premier League, but also its clubs.
It’s a given that the Europa League will forever remain in the shadow of the Champions League, but if Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs all approach the tournament positively, they may find they gain more than just air miles.
Watch the competition with the help of FourFourTwo's award-winning Stats Zone app – now available for the Europa League and completely free in association with Western Union.
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