Frankfurt win, Rangers lose, but they both played their part in the rebirth of Europa

RANGERS, almost inevitably, lost to Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties, reinforcing the widely-held belief that Germans are good at spot kicks. But they went so close to achieving the startlingly fine achievement of winning a major European prize, something no Scottish side has managed since 1983 when Aberdeen won the now defunct European Cup-Winners’ Cup.

There was a time when Scottish teams were highly respected in Europe, largely thanks to the exploits of Celtic and Rangers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Celtic’s 1967 European Cup victory now looks like an astonishing feat, but in that era, Jock Stein’s team was every bit as good – if not better – than anything coming out of England. In truth, Celtic should have won the competition in 1970, but they didn’t realise Feyenoord were Ajax’s bastard cousins in Rotterdam.

Rangers have been through some rough times and Celtic fans will waste no time in reminding them of their financial mismanagement in the aftermath of the Europa League final. But penalties is no way to win – or lose – a final, especially after such a protracted journey to Seville. Rangers played eight teams on route to Spain, including another pair of German sides (Dortmund and Leipzig). To have this journey decided by penalties seems unfair on any team.

Rangers missed just one penalty and it happened to be from the boot of former Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey. Now, of course, everyone is passing opinion on his disappointing spell with Rangers, but let’s face it, anyone can miss a penalty.

Rangers may have lost the Scottish Premier to their Glasgow rivals, but 2021-22 has still been another memorable year. They were only four points behind Celtic and lost three games in the league, two to the green and white side of the city. Now they face Hearts in the Scottish Cup final, so they have to raise their spirits quickly.

The final in Seville ends a really fascinating Europa League campaign, one that has certainly improved public perception of the competition. The creation of the Conference League has actually strengthened the Europa and has revived memories of the UEFA Cup in its heyday, with big names like Barcelona, Sevilla, Porto, Napoli, West Ham United and Rangers. The excitement created by some of the teams has underlined the importance of the Europa, the next step would be to make Thursday nights an appropriate night, perhaps by shifting league games scheduled for the Sundays that follow matchdays in Europe.

Certainly, the atmosphere at some games has been outstanding, even if Frankfurt’s fans at the final – equipped with white outfits and caps – looked like hordes of pharma or dairy workers on an evening out.

Frankfurt clearly enjoyed their victory, from their joyous supporters to their hysterical players, who even invaded their manager’s press conference. It may even liven up the normally sedate finanzplatz that is the city on the Main. Rangers, understandably, were devastated, and rightly so, because they gave everything. They should go home with a smile on their face, for they played their part in the resurrection of the Europa League. 

We need to get away from the mantra that it’s “Champions League or nothing” that has helped to devalue so many competitions across Europe. In the past, qualifying for Europe provided a little bit of gilding on a season for clubs near the top part of the league table. The over-expansion of the Champions League did a lot of damage, but it was a self-inflicted problem. OK, give more European football to the people, but go for quality over quantity. It has still got to be properly addressed in the Champions League, but UEFA started this process with the inauguration of the Conference League and they may just have got it right. The latter stages of this season’s Europa League suggested there was a slightly different attitude emerging.

UEFA Europa League: Barcelona hit form at the wrong time for West Ham

WEST HAM United’s 2-0 victory over Sevilla was an old fashioned European night, the kind the Boleyn Ground used to host so well on the rare occasions the Hammers qualified for the long departed Cup-Winners’ Cup. In 1975-76, clashes with the likes of Den Haag and Eintracht Frankfurt produced a marvellous, memorable atmosphere and the sound of “bubbles” rang out in the cold East London air. In some ways, the London Stadium, which has been criticised for having a somewhat empty feeling, announced its arrival against Sevilla.

West Ham have enjoyed their European run this season and they now figure among the favourites to lift the Europa League trophy. They have been drawn against Lyon, an underperforming side who have also saved some of their best moments for the competition. Their two-legged win against Porto was an achievement and they actually won five of their six group games. 

West Ham have, if anything, punched above their weight this season, but following on from 2020-21, when they finished in sixth position, their performance suggests they have moved up a step in the hierarchy. They should have enough to get past Lyon, but they could then come up against Barcelona, who were sent into Europa exile after failing in the Champions League. 

A few months ago, Barcelona would not have kept West Ham boss David Moyes awake at night, but in recent weeks, the club seems to have regained its confidence and found some form. Their 4-0 victory at Real Madrid was a stunning result and demonstrated they are on their way back after a miserable end to 2021. New signings Ferran Torres (Manchester City) and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) have settled in well and have scored 15 goals between them.

Barcelona face Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-finals, no easy draw, but the Blaugrana have not been beaten in the league since early December. Frankfurt are in eighth place in the Bundesliga and have beaten Bayern in Munich, so they will be a tough opponent for Xavi’s team. Curiously, West Ham fans were set upon by their Frankfurt counterparts in Seville, when the Hammers were in town to face Sevilla and the German side playing at Real Betis. It’s not hard to imagine what could happen if West Ham have to travel to the Deutsche Bank Park stadium for a semi-final game.

Barcelona, however, will be determined to win the Europa League to ensure a path back to the Champions League. This is important not only for the financial benefits of being involved in the premier competition, but also to erase the humiliation of their early elimination from the Champions League. As for West Ham, they will be desperate to win something for the first time in 41 years and also rubber-stamp their elevation to European club status.

But there are other contenders and Lyon are also among the clubs that could win the competition this season. RB Leipzig, for all their spectacular progress, have never won a trophy, so you could argue they are due some material success. Similarly, Atalanta, who have joined the Serie A upper bracket in the past couple of years, could also do with some silverware to provide affirmation of their rise. Braga and Rangers are two of the more unfancied sides in the draw, but in this half of the quarter-final draw, any team could go all the way to the final. Rangers have had some good nights in the Europa this season, beating Borussia Dortmund and Red Star Belgrade in the knockout phase. Braga, who beat Monaco in the round of 16, finished second to Red Star in their group. They are currently fourth in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, while Rangers are in a battle to regain the Scottish Premiership title they won in 2021.

The field is wide open, but GOTP’s prediction is a last four of West Ham v Barcelona and Leipzig v Rangers, with the final on May 18 in Sevilla being contested by Barcelona and Leipzig. On the other hand… 

Soccer City: Frankfurt – aiming to be Fußballplatz

EINTRACHT FRANKFURT reached their first UEFA semi-final since 1980 when they overturned a two-goal deficit to beat Portugal’s Benfica on away goals in the last eight of the Europa League.

Eintracht may not be regular European contenders these days, but the club played its part in one of the most famous matches of all time, the 1960 European Cup final which they lost to Real Madrid by 7-3 at Hampden Park. Eintracht were German champions in 1959, their only title, and had the audacity to take the lead after 18 minutes. The likes of Di Stefano and Puskas made them pay for that and Die Adler(the Eagles) were on the end of a drubbing.

Frankfurt is not considered to be a hotbed of football in the Munich sense, the city is better known as the financial centre of Germany, Finanzplatz Frankfurt. It is the home of the European Central Bank and other major companies such as Deutsche Bank, Deutsche Bundesbank and Holzmann. Frankfurt is the biggest and most important financial hub in continental Europe and is hoping to capitalise on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. The city on the River Main is often unfairly criticised for lacking character, but does include the most spectacular range of tall buildings, earning it the nickname of Mainhattan.

Aerial photo of Commerzbank Arena stadium 03.06.2015. Photo: PA

There are few more international or cosmopolitan cities in Germany than Frankfurt. It has a population of 750,000 and a big expatriate community, the majority of which are employed in the financial sector. Its airport is one of the busiest in Europe.

Frankfurt is also the home of the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), the game’s governing body. It was founded in 1900 in Leipzig but is now based close to the Commerbank Arena, the home of Eintracht Frankfurt and an impressive ground that was once known as the Wald Stadion. The stadium has been refurbished several times down the years and was one of the 2006 World Cup venues. It has a retractable roof and a capacity of 51,500. It’s just a short train journey from the airport and has its own station. Frankfurt was buzzing during the World Cup, with games also being shown on the river Main for crowds to enjoy. The city, indeed the whole of Germany, put on an excellent show for FIFA.

Eintracht Frankfurt were founded in 1899. Their most productive period was in the 1970s when they won the DFB Pokal twice and finished in the top four of the Bundesliga. Their team included players like Jürgen Grabowski, Juup Heynckes and Bernd Hölzenbein.

In 2018-19, Eintracht are enjoying something of a resurgence, which is not necessarily good news for Europa semi-final opponents Chelsea. They are currently fourth in the Bundesliga and their Europa League run builds on their 2017-18 DFB Pokal triumph over Bayern Munich in Berlin.

Their attacking style has made them popular with neutrals. The club has a good relationship with its fans, engaging with them over a broad range of issues. Curiously, after beating Benfica in the Europa quarter-final, their fans, who had created a fantastic atmosphere, pushed over a barrier in their eagerness to celebrate with their players, but they did not invade the pitch.

Photo: PA

The close season saw a mass influx of new players, including Eintracht’s former goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, Paris Saint-Germain’s goalkeeper, who returned on loan with a view to a permanent move. Trapp was one of the heroes in the Europa tie with Benfica, pulling-off a late save and turning the ball against a post.

At the other end, Eintracht have been boosted by the goals of Luka Jović, a 20 year-old Serbian striker who originally joined the club on loan from Benfica. Eintracht have been so pleased with their young goal poacher that they triggered the EUR 7 million loan-to-buy clause.

Jović became the youngest player to score five goals in a Bundesliga game when Eintracht beat Fortuna Duesseldorf 7-1 this season. As well as Jović’s 17 goals, France under-21 international Sébastien Haller has netted 14 times in the Bundesliga.

In the Europa League, Eintracht have been in excellent form, winning all six of their group games against Lazio, Apollon Limassol and Marseille. In the round of 32, they beat Shakhtar Donetsk and then overcome Inter Milan (a notable away win) before disposing of Benfica.

Adi Hütter took over as coach in May 2018 after Niko Kovač joined Bayern Munich. Hütter, an Austrian, was previously coach at Young Boys Bern and before that, Red Bull Salzburg. Eintracht made a poor start under their new manager, losing three of their first five games in the league. They have lost just once in the Bundesliga in 2019 and their most recent run of five consecutive victories ended on April 14 with a home defeat against Augsburg. Eintracht’s average gate in 2018-19 is 48,475 making them the seventh best supported club in the Bundesliga.

Photo: PA

Crowds at Frankfurt’s other clubs are not so impressive. FSV Frankfurt, a club that was runner-up in the German championship in 1925, play in front of around 1,300 people at the 12,000 capacity Frankfurter Volksbank Station in the Bornheim district of the city. FSV play in the Regionalliga Sued West and in 2018-19 are below mid-table. As recently as 2016, FSV were in 2.Bundesliga when they were relegated to 3.Liga and they suffered a second consecutive demotion in 2016-17.

Even lower down the German football pyramid are Rot-Weiss Frankfurt, who date back to 1901 and have had a number of identities, including Frankfurter FV Amicitia and SG Bockenheim, the district where the club resides today. Their home is the Stadion am Brentanobad and they compete in the Hessenliga.

Frankfurt may never be as “sexy” as Berlin, Munich or Hamburg, but its top football club, which plays entertaining, powerful football, can help change its image. It is an extremely accessible city and one that acts as a gateway to all corners of Europe. Chelsea have a very tough task when they travel to Germany – Eintracht, after all, are a top four Bundesliga club – one that may, eventually, elevate Frankfurt-am-Main to a similar status to more celebrated football cities in Germany.