Europe: an unexpected journey.
Modern football has many ills, none more so than the battle between development, financial power and the prioritisation of winning.
Wenger’s comment on the priority of fourth place in the Premier League has been carved into something of an in joke, but really it’s a fine commentary on the way football has gone since Sky got ‘in and around’ the beautiful game.
The money increased, and as such priorities changed. How many times have you seen a bottom-half side send out the reserves in a cup game? You can hardly blame them.
And so to Europe. The continent’s most prestigious competitions offer good money and prestigious prizes, so have naturally been able to spurn the threat of the Premier League’s cash trough. But between the Champions League and the Europa League, the importance of ‘winning’ has come into question.
This was perfectly illustrated through Arsenal fans’ relief at avoiding the Europa League – European football’s answer to a question nobody asked. The overall feeling was that fans would rather finish fourth (and miss out on European football altogether) than third, where a trophy beckons.
Obviously Arsenal have a Premier League crown to chase this season, but if anything this attitude simply reinforces the idea that no English club will ever complete a treble like Manchester United’s of 1999 ever again. With the winter schedule and the increasing prioritisation of competitions, it looks agonisingly unlikely.
‘Which tournament will Manchester City decide they want to win least?’ is a slogan that never sold any Sky Sports subscriptions, and never will.
Three of England’s finest teams currently find themselves in the Europa League however, and it might just turn out to be the most important competition for them in their recent histories.
Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham all find themselves in amongst the hustle and bustle of the last 32, and all three are also in what you might call a ‘transitional stage’, or ‘not in the title race’ to you and me. To them, the Europa League must not be undervalued.
First off, there’s your friend and mine the coefficient, which is looking miraculously healthy. With three English clubs in the last 16 of the Champions League, and three also in the last 32 of the Europa League, there’s colour in the cheeks of Colin Coefficient at present, and now is not an opportunity to be wasted.
Italy probably couldn’t have hoped for a worse draw, while England’s is average. Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United should definitely go through, while Chelsea and Tottenham both have a good chance. Our Europa League trio currently all covet fourth place, so a good run of ‘winning’ would enhance their chances of Champions League football.
If you thought the battle for fourth place was contradictory to the idea of winning, then you’ll love the battle for the coefficient to actually retain the fourth Champions League spot; scintillating stuff.
But here is a chance to develop as well. All joking aside, these three sides are in a development stage. Tottenham’s young side navigated by the very able Mauricio Pochettino are something to be excited by for example. Here is a team that has plenty of experience in the competition, as well as the quality. They are cutting their teeth here, not only learning how to play against foreign opposition who will use different tactics, but also learning how to travel.
Manchester United and Liverpool would do well to respect the competition similarly. The best example: Atletico Madrid. Twice winners, in 2010 and 2012, went on to finish as runners-up in the Champions League in 2014 and won arguably the hardest league in the world in the same year.
Chelsea, Europa League winners in 2013, went on to win their first league title for 5 years in 2015 and reached the Champions League semi finals in 2014. Arsenal finished as UEFA Cup runners-up in 2000 in a precursor to one of the most successful 5-year spells in the club’s history.
Here is a proving ground then for three teams who are desperately trying to basically get better. But above all else, here is a chance to ‘win’. Remember that feeling? The respective trophy droughts of Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham will be three years, four years and eight years by the end of the current season, and if we really must rank the trophies available, surely the Europa League ranks higher than the FA Cup and League Cup?
Ultimately, the Europa League can be a drain on emotion and energy, but for Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United it represents significantly more than that this season.