Nobody in the blue quarter of Liverpool will want to sacrifice Premier safety for European glory, but Everton are probably now England’s last hope of success in this season’s UEFA bunfights.
As Chelsea fell and the nation’s football fans looked nervously at second leg hurdles in Barcelona and Monaco next week, Everton’s Europa League tie with Dynamo Kiev came into view. It may not have the allure of its bigger brother, but the UEFA Europa League should be far more prestigious than it appears to be among English clubs. Certainly it could rescue an Everton season badly in need of a lift.
The last 16 is a tough bag. It comprises three clubs currently leading their respective leagues this season – Zenit, Brugge and Dynamo Kiev – four more in second place (Besiktas, Ajax, Roma and Wolfsburg) and all but Everton are in the top nine. Roberto Martinez’s side are the lowest ranked side left and they have the poorest record. Some sceptics might point to the relative strength of the leagues, but after London debacles featuring Arsenal and Chelsea, nobody should underestimate the power of good momentum in any major European league.
Of the last 16, an astonishing five are from Italy’s Serie A (supposedly a sick man of Europe) and they include teams in second, fourth and fifth places. Two come from Spain, including holders Sevilla. If I were a gambling man, I would fancy the winners of the Villareal-Sevilla tie to go on to the final, along with Wolfsburg or the winners of the Fiorentina-Roma clash.
So what of Everton’s chances? It’s unlikely that they will get drawn into serious relegation trouble, but they are still looking nervously over their shoulders. Their form is dire, however – one Premier win in 12, and that was at Crystal Palace. Their last home win was in mid-December when they beat QPR 3-1. Encouragingly, on the European front, they completed a double over Bundesliga high-fliers Wolfsburg and in the round of 32, they easily eliminated Young Boys of Berne 7-2 on aggregate.
Martinez has come under criticism for his team’s style of play, with some justification. They hold the ball for too long on occasions and don’t make full use of the pace and strength of Romelu Lukaku, whose £ 28m transfer is looking like a great bit of business by Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho.
Moreover, some players seem to have lost their way, notably England youngster Ross Barkley, who seems to have misplaced his confidence and conviction. And while goalkeeper Tim Howard is enjoying something of an Indian Summer, the defence in front of him has looked leaden-footed and easy to penetrate.
Certainly Everton have fallen short of expectations this season after an excellent campaign in 2013-14 where they beat teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. This is Martinez’s second year at Goodison and now he will have to draw on his experience in fighting relegation battles at Wigan to ensure Everton don’t get dragged into the mire.
Kiev will not be easy, however. They are unbeaten in this troubled season for the Ukraine and they have conceded just seven goals.They beat Guincamp of France in the last round and their group included the Romanian team formerly known as Steaua Bucharest (!), Portugal’s Rio Ave and Aalborg from Denmark.
But it’s becoming clear now that English clubs are over-hyped after their performances in Europe this season. Given the Premier is supposed to be the best in the world (source: FA Premier), clubs have certainly under-performed in European competition.
In the past five years, only one club has reached the last four of the Europa League, and that was Champions League refugees Chelsea, who went on to win the competition. Only two – Tottenham and Newcastle in 2013, the same year, have reached the last eight. Mostly, it has been exit in the round of 16 or 32. English clubs have been beaten by Portuguese, Swiss, Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish, Italian and Spanish outfits. And we are talking about clubs like Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Basel, Zenit, Valencia and Kiev. None of these would be considered blue riband clubs in the current money, but they represent formidable Europa hurdles.
The Champions League story is rapidly becoming an eye-opener for English football. Whereas being eliminated by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid is no disgrace, the fact that two French clubs can push both Chelsea and Arsenal out of the competition (Arsenal’s exit still has to be confirmed, of course), is an indicator that the Premier’s top clubs are slipping down the European hierarchy. For Chelsea, their exit represents two disappointing Champions League campaigns in three (2012-13 Group stage; 2013-14 SF; 2014-15 Last 16). They have been knocked-out by Juventus and Shakhtar, Atletico Madrid and PSG, none of which are among the elite. Arsenal usually wilt against Bayern Munich, as they have done in the past two seasons, which is not a great surprise, but losing to Monaco may be a tipping point. Manchester City can now get out of their group, but if they face Barcelona, it is a different story. Liverpool went out at the group stage very cheaply. In the past five years, only three times has a Premier club reached the last four: Manchester United 2010-11, Chelsea 2011-12 and 2013-14.
I think the most annoying aspect of all this is the arrogance that pervades English domestic football. When Chelsea and Arsenal were drawn against Ligue 1 clubs, the response was that both should progress. Indeed, Arsenal were quick to say that it was “the draw we wanted”. Even this week there has been talk of the weakness of Ligue 1 from Chelsea, comments which must surely have been pinned on the wall of the PSG dressing room at Stamford Bridge. In the aftermath of the game, egg is no doubt being scraped off the face of the Chelsea management. They would do well to listen to the comments made by Lille coach Rene Girard after Monaco had silenced the Emirates: “To those who say our league is shit, it proves there’s perhaps shit elsewhere as well.”
Everton have the chance to restore some faith in English football, they just need to focus and forget their current Premier League problems.