There is no doubt about it, the Europa League is a step down from the Champions League, it’s probably more than just one step down actually, nobody is going to argue otherwise. When the Champions League decided to move away from a champions only policy and pack itself to the brim with the majority of Europe’s elite, the knock on effect is the level of teams competing in Europe’s secondary competition will invariably suffer too. “More teams means more competition” was the UEFA mantra and we’ve ended up with a tournament that is a little bloated while still in the group stages at least.
So while there is no getting away from the fact that, in the early stages and rounds, the Europa League has its issues, once it gets to knock out stages it’s still a really good, entertaining tournament. The second half of the tournament is full of good, technical, ball playing sides and the play offs are full of intriguing, entertaining fixtures. Yet for some reason English football seems to think it’s above it all.
Man United got dumped out of the Champions League this week and will enter the Europa League next spring. Finishing third in your group and getting into the Europa League is often touted as being more of a boogey prize rather than the consolation it is intended to be. The British media and pundits would often be heard pondering the notion that if you cant qualify from your group, then maybe it would be better to finish last and avoid Europa.
Rio Ferdinand was part of a Man United team in 2011 that failed to get out of their group and ended up playing Thursday night football. Rio was a pundit for BT Sport on Tuesday night as part of their Champions League coverage, and reflecting on his own experience, he claimed it was an embarrassment to be in the Europa League. An embarrassment (he reiterated). He couldn’t show his face around Manchester, because people kept looking at him as some sort of failure.
Now, I get it, Man United (especially during Rio’s time) were used to being in the Champions League, competing in Europe’s premier competition and “dining at the top table”, so for a team made up of extremely driven, serial winners, I can see how it could knock your ego to have to sit at the perceived kiddies table for a bit. However, if you fail to qualify from your group, then you’re not good enough to play in the Champions League, and at this moment in time, the Europa League is Man United’s level, if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be there. There’s no need to be embarrassed or act like you’re too good to be there. But it’s not just Man United who view it as the kiddies table, it’s the whole of English football.
Teams like Tottenham and Liverpool have been regular entrants into the Europa League over recent seasons, and neither team looks particular bothered. The group stages are normally navigated with minimum fuss, because you often play semi professional teams you’ve never heard of from countries you can’t spell, but even as the tournament progresses, the games are mostly used as chance to play some youngsters, some fringe players and the players you couldn’t sell in the summer.
Liverpool may have an extremely proud history with 5 European Cup wins (that they never mention), but to look down on the Europa League is a case of viewing yourself as something you used to be as opposed to something you currently are. Liverpool have been in the Europa League every season for the last 5 years, 5 years isn’t a blip, it’s not a one off, that’s the level they are at, and while they may aspire to move back into the top bracket, that’s the reality. With all due respect to Spurs, they are a team with next to no European pedigree yet they seem to view themselves as being above the competition too.
Going further down the table, Swansea City won the League Cup in 2013 and secured their place in the clubs first ever foray into European competition. The following season, when they finished 8th, club captain Ashley Williams admitted in an interview that he was relieved that Swansea wouldn’t be playing in the Europa League again, that they would rather focus on finishing higher in Premier League. This season when West Ham and Southampton qualified for the Europa League, they had to go through qualifying rounds, games which – judging by the lineups put out for the games – were essentially thrown, or at least not cared about. West Ham and Southampton, recently promoted sides, view the Europa League as being beneath them. Chelsea, being the exception to the rule, embraced the Europa League when they failed to qualify from their Champions League group in 2012, and even went on to win it. Unfortunately, current Chelsea manager José Mourinho recently derided that win and claimed that the competition is below Chelsea.
Yet all around Europe, other sides, teams with bigger reputations and richer histories than the like of Spurs, West Ham and Southampton take the tournament seriously. Juventus were beaten semi finalists in 2014, a year later they were beaten finalists in the Champions League. Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Ajax, Porto, Benfica and Sevilla all treat the competition with respect and see it as a chance to go out and win some trophies and medals; something that seems to be of diminishing importance with the continued commercialization of the game.
England are in danger of losing their 4th place spot for the Champions League, which would be a massive blow to the league. The reason their 4th spot is in such peril, is because in an era where the top English sides are no longer a force in Europe and don’t reach the latter stages of the Champions League with any regularity, they are also letting themselves down in the Europa League. Other countries taking the tournament seriously has led to their coefficient rising, and England’s flippant attitude as seen theirs dip drastically.
English football, and the Premier League teams in general need a reality check when it comes to their arrogance towards the Europa League. They all feel they are above it and too good for it, but in the Champions League they are constantly coming up short and what were once perceived to be inferior sides, are playing the English heavyweights off the pitch with ever increasing frequency. Pride comes before a fall, and a fall is a very realistic possibility on the very near horizon for English football. The individual teams may not agree, but it’s in English football’s best interests if the likes of Man United, Liverpool and Spurs get their act together and treat the competition with some respect.