In the 1960s and 1970s, any European competition seemed to capture the imagination. Fans would turn up for a glimpse of crack East Germans, uncompromising Italians, well organized West Germans and oh so free and easy Dutchmen. UEFA had three club competitions – The European Cup, The UEFA Cup (the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in old money) and The European Cup Winners’ Cup. In terms of strength and competitiveness, that was the order of things. The ECWC fell by the wayside, often a weak competition, but nevertheless, still attractive if you wanted to see what was on offer on the fog-bound continent.
Over the past 20 years, the Champions League has got bigger and bigger, sucking up all the second, third and fourth place teams that used to make the UEFA Cup so strong and in effect, diluting the attractiveness of the newly branded Europa League. And given it’s also used as a consolation prize for the Champions League first fence fallers, it’s little wonder that the Europa has all the air of a day-old glass of lager.
It doesn’t help that teams seem to field weakened line-ups. They complain that playing Thursday and then Sunday is unreasonable, but is it any different than Wednesday-Saturday? It shouldn’t be. It’s a mystery why teams seem to turn their noses up at the Europa. Cards on the table….how many teams can possibly qualify for the Champions League in England? Four, five at a push. How many can win the title? Two….three (let’s see you then). What’s more important – Premier survival or silverware? We know the answer to that. At the moment, in top flight football, only two things seem to matter: Premier Divison and Champions League. So, that’s the target for the Manchesters, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham. For the rest, it’s survival.
To make it even more bizarre, it’s a case of qualifying for the Champions League, not winning it. So it’s about money, pure and simple. If football wants to return to the days when silverware is the driving factor, it has to make finishing in the bottom six of the Premier less attractive. Take QPR, for example. They received £43m last season in TV-related fees. TV money totaled almost £1billion in 2011-12 in the Premier. Nice work if you can get it, but what this is doing is making Premier survival so important that anything else pales into insignificance. And I’m afraid that’s why the Europa League will never attain the gravitas it needs to make UEFA’s number two competition the big box office draw.
That said, at Chelsea, 38,000 people turned up to see a dire game against Sparta Prague. Chelsea fielded a weakened side and it almost back-fired on them. The whole atmosphere, aside from the happy Prague fans (why is chanting from Eastern Europe seemingly heavy on bass control and more hostile on the ears?), was one of indifference. Coupled with the continued toxicity around Rafa Benitez, Stamford Bridge is not a happy place. Great goal by Hazard, though, which sent the Stamford Bridge regulars home relieved that they did not have to sit through extra time on a bitter evening.
There’s enough quality left in the competition to worry Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle. The Russian threat is growing, with Anzhi Makhachkala (Newcastle’s opponents in the next round), Zenit and Rubin Kazan all favourites to get through to the last eight. Tottenham will do well to dispose of Inter and Chelsea will have an uncomfortable time in Bucharest against Steaua, who overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Ajax on penalties. If the three English clubs do not field their best eleven, they will go the same way as Liverpool. And those Russians – indeed Eastern Europeans – are menacing in the cold weather….