When Manchester United were defeated by Wolfsburg and dumped out of the Champions League, the philosophical wheels on Louis Van Gaal’s bus began to come off in earnest. The inevitable sacking has still yet to materialise but popular consensus is that it is when, rather than if, he will be leaving the club. The money men at Old Trafford may have forgiven this transgression in the short term but they certainly won’t forget. Like Moyes before him, Van Gaal may pay the ultimate price once qualification for next season’s Champions League is a mathematical impossibility. For most observers, elimination from the Champions League didn’t signal the end to European competition for the season, it was much worse. Third place in the group meant a date with the Champions League’s ugly sister, the perennially derided Europa League.
The Europa League is rarely taken seriously, even by teams with no continental pedigree. Southampton and West Ham, who cannot usually expect to compete for trophies on too many fronts, limped out in the early stages of this season’s competition before it had even got going. Not too many were upset. Why? The argument is that the Premier League is too financially important, now more so than ever with the new TV deal on the horizon. Given their impending, and controversial, move to the Olympic Stadium next season West Ham had to put of all their eggs in the Premier League basket with second tier football an unfathomable thought. Manchester United will enter the fray in the last 32 as the cup transitions to a straight knock-out format, joining two English representatives: Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
The bloated format of the current Europa League doesn’t do it any favours. The Thursday night schedule also doesn’t help matters, as participating teams are forever forced into rearranged league fixtures. I can’t see the difference between Wednesday-Saturday and Thursday-Sunday fixtures but perhaps someone is better placed to explain the intricacies of that. The money isn’t great in the Europa League, peanuts compared to those on offer for the Champions League and Premier League. Therefore what is the incentive for teams to make a real go of the competition? A Champions League spot was offered to the winners, which may appeal to the few clubs in with a realistic chance of winning, but not to the majority who may feel like they will play more than a dozen or so games only to be eliminated by a stronger club in the later stages.
The real incentive, surely, is the glory. Trophies are hard to come by nowadays for all but the richest teams. In England for example, you can guarantee that the three domestic trophies will be contested by five or six of the biggest clubs. In the Champions League Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich seem to be the dominant force. That leaves the Europa League, for teams perhaps not equipped to win any of the aforementioned trophies to find a piece of glory. Medals and trophies aren’t given out for finishing twelfth in the Premier League. It baffles me that teams work tirelessly throughout a season with the aim of finishing as high up the table as possible. What then is the point of throwing that hard work away by fielding weak teams in the competition that is meant to reward your efforts the previous season?
In the last decade La Liga’s Sevilla have been the Europa League’s real success story, winning the competition a staggering four times. They also managed to bag 2 Copa Del Rey’s, a UEFA Super Cup and a Spanish Super Cup. Defying the myth that good cup runs shatter your chances in the league, Sevilla have finished sixth, third and fifth twice in those seasons that they lifted the Europa League. Perhaps they could have gone even further on the domestic front had they not gone all the way in Europe, but it is impossible to say for sure. It’s unlikely that they would’ve broken the Barcelona-Madrid stranglehold. It remains to be seen how seriously Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United take this competition as we go into the last 32. It could realistically be their only shot at silverware and a guaranteed route into the Champions League, and that is not to be sniffed at.
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