Most English clubs have not punched their weight in the Europa League over the past few years. This is partly due to an occasional reluctance to field a full-strength side – a baffling situation given the efforts made to secure that place – and a good deal of it is purely and simply, underestimating the opposition. It could also be, quite bluntly, that outside of the top four, the standard of the Premier drops alarmingly.
I think it’s a combination of all three, with the last of those pitfalls being the most relevant. The vast majority of the EPL may not be competitive enough in Europe. Look at this season’s Europa League. Hull City, admittedly in unknown territory, struggled against Slovakia’s AC Trencin and were beaten by Lokeren in their Europa League play-off. With the greatest respect to both of Hull’s opponents, these are not top-tier teams. Teams like Swansea City, Stoke City, Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City have all struggled to make headway in the Europa League.
I don’t think it is credible to say that playing in Europe – with the obvious exception of the Champions League, group stages onwards, represents a huge adjustment from standard Premier fare. Why? The EPL is a multi-national competition for a start. Secondly, the league is no longer the property of English coaches. Of the current 20 Premier managers, only eight are English. Thirdly, there should be few surprises these days.
But aside from all the factors mentioned: line-ups, underestimation and a lack of strength in depth, there’s also another reason why English teams don’t do themselves justice – the Europa League lacks gravitas.
The competition, to a large degree, has been devalued by the Champions League’s overbearing breadth and depth. I like the Champions League as it represents, arguably, the best football on the planet. It’s a feast, especially in the knockout stage, and it has become more compelling than the World Cup. Country has lost the battle with Club, I’m afraid.
The Europa is the UCL’s snotty-nosed, raggy-trousered, less fortunate younger brother, but it didn’t really have to become quite so overblown. In 2014-15, a grand total of 195 teams will participate from 54 associations. That’s more than three times the number that competed in classical-era UEFA Cup. Ridiculous.
The problem is, Europa League football has become as commonplace as “mince on Monday”. Because so many teams are involved, it doesn’t feel like you’ve won a place in something unique. Qualifying for Europe used to be an achievement – for most clubs, it was the best they could ever hope for – but now, the Champions League is the undisputed Holy Grail (77 teams from 53 associations) and everything else pales into insignificance. In England, for example, one fifth of the Premier play in the Champions League on an annual basis, but in reality, only four or five clubs can truly hope to make the cut. The consequence is that the Europa feels like a Boxing Day meal of leftovers rather than a hearty Christmas lunch.
And that is clearly being reflected in the performance of English clubs. With the exception of a desperately intense Chelsea in 2013, the Premier’s also-rans don’t really do the competition justice. Tottenham, if they had been more focused, would surely have added this impressive-looking piece of silverware to their cob-webbed trophy cabinet oin the past few years. Quite often, though, English sides have gone out cheaply after fielding below-par sides.
The answer is simple, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. UEFA needs to slim-down the UCL, transfer some strength back into the Europa and the Europa itself needs to invest in some liposuction to throw a lot of excess baggage out of the basket. Introduce more inducements for being successful, such as UCL qualification for the last four, change the entire competition into a two-legged knockout and get rid of the Thursday night graveyard slot. That will give the competition and its participants greater self-esteem. Champions League 64 clubs, Europa League 64 clubs. Prestige restored and a proper competition rather than a lame excuse for a sponsorship sideshow.
But don’t forget, this is an organization that is doing its best to ruin the most exciting national team competition around. They would argue at UEFA towers in Nyon, while congratulating themselves, that the Europa introduces a form of democracy to the continent’s favourite sport – “European football for all”. That may be the case, but if you drink Champagne every day, it does become boring.