UEFA Europa League: Arsenal and United swing into action

TWO English clubs who would really prefer to be slugging it out in the Champions League start their Europa League campaigns. Arsenal, who have not participated in the premier competition since 2016-17, return to Europe with a trip to FC Zurich. Manchester United, who reached the last 16 of the Champions League in 2017-18, have had to settle for the Europa this season.

Arsenal are playing in St. Gallen because the match clashes with an athletics meeting in Zurich. Despite losing their unbeaten record against Manchester United, they arrived in Switzerland as Premier League leaders, with five wins from six games. They have been in excellent form, playing attractive football and scoring goals, a big contrast from their opponents, who have started 2022-23 abysmally. Zurich, Swiss Super League champions in 2021-22 for the first time since 2009, have just two points from their first even games. The mood was set on the opening day of the season when they were thrashed by Young Boys 4-0.  

Zurich lost their coach, André Breitenreiter to Hoffenheim and appointed Franco Foda as his successor in June 2022. Foda is a very different manager to his predecessor. “We were deliberately not looking for a copy of Breitenreiter, but an experienced coach who can develop this team both technically and tactically,” explained Zurich’s president Ancillo Canepa. Despite their league form and an early Champions League exit, Zurich shifted to the Europa and have beaten two British clubs already, Linfield and Hearts.

Arsenal will be among the favourites for the Europa League this season. Their two European trophies have, unfortunately, been consigned to history. The first was won in 1970, the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup, which was not a UEFA-inaugurated competition, and they lifted the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1994.

Manchester United are in far better shape than they were a few weeks ago and will also be among the more fancied teams. They have beaten Liverpool and Arsenal in recent games and have dispersed the black clouds that descended on Old Trafford in August. Manager Erik ten Hag has turned round what was becoming a very tricky situation. Their 3-1 win against Arsenal was impressive and marked the debut of Brazilian striker Antony, who scored the first goal in that victory. Ten Hag has shown resilience in the way he has handled the Cristiano Ronaldo affair well and the Portuguese striker has been used sparingly. United won the Europa in 2017 and were finalists in 2021.

Real Sociedad have had a patchy start to the season and have struggled to score goals. They could include former Manchester City midfielder David Silva in their line-up. They have a modest European record having played in the Europa for three consecutive seasons, but their best run was in the European Cup in 1983 when they reached the semi-finals, losing to eventual winners Hamburg SV.

There are other attractive games in the first matchday of the Europa League. Lazio are playing Feyenoord, the runners-up in the UEFA Conference League last season. Lazio, under Maurizio Sarri, have lost just once in Serie A and have been in decent form. They still have Ciro Immobile in their forward line, but the sharp-shooter is now 32 years old. They finished fifth last season and they should be in for another good year. Feyenoord are unbeaten, winning four of their five games, and are third in the Eredivisie. They are old European campaigners, having won the European Cup in 1970 and UEFA Cup in 1974 and 2002.

Red Star Belgrade have also won the European Cup, in 1991, and they remain Serbia’s most visible club on the international stage. They host Monaco, who reached the Champions League final in 2004 and European Cup-Winners’ Cup final in 1992. Red Star were denied a place in the Champions League group stage by Maccabi Haifa, while Monaco were eliminated in the third qualifying round by PSV Eindhoven. Red Star are unbeaten in their domestic league, but trail surprise club Novi Pazar by a single point. Monaco’s league form has been mixed so far.

There are 12 other group games:  PSV v Bødo/Glimt; AEK Larnarca v Rennes; Fenerbahce v Dynamo Kyiv; HJK Helsinki v Real Betis; Ludogorets v Roma; Union Berlin v Union Saint-Gilloise; Malmo v Sporting Braga; Omonia Nicosia v Sherrif; Sturm Graz v Midtjylland; Nantes v Olympiakos; Freiburg v Qarabag; Ferencvaros v Trabzonspor.

AS Roma rejoice as UEFA’s Conference League revives old Europe

THE LAST AS Roma coach to win a European trophy was Luis Carniglia from Argentina. Like José Mourinho, the current toast of the eternal city, Carniglia had won two European Cups before arriving in the Italian capital. He had also been in charge of Real Madrid and had led his team to the La Liga title. Carniglia’s European triumph with Roma was in the long forgotten Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a competition that was not actually organised by UEFA, Mourinho’s latest prize was a much-derided idea by the governing body to provide more pan-European football to the people. In some ways, the Fairs Cup and the Conference League have something in common – the battle to win credibility.

Roma beat Feyenoord 1-0 in an interesting and tense final in Tirana, settled by a deft first half goal from Nicolò Zaniolo. There was something a little nostalgic about this pairing. It took you back to the days of the Fairs Cup and its successor, the UEFA Cup, and judging by the reaction at the final whistle, it left the crowd, the TV audience and the media in no doubt that this cup meant something to both clubs.

Feyenoord might consider themselves a shade unlucky, enjoying a frenetic second half spell that saw them hit the woodwork twice, but Mourinho’s team stuck to a plan, producing a disciplined defensive display with goalkeeper Rui Patricio and central defender Chris Smalling both outstanding. Feyenoord won plenty of friends with their bold style and the future looks bright for the club from Rotterdam and their manager Arne Slot.

We live in an age of acquired elitism, where only the finest of everything is considered worthwhile. This transcends all aspects of life, from personal possessions, property, professions, occupations and lifestyles. In football, the world has become obsessed with the Champions League, so much so that anything less than qualification for the competition is seen as failure. Hence, the Europa League has often been played down and some clubs have clearly not taken it seriously enough. There was a danger the introduction of the Conference League was adding another unnecessary layer to the UEFA competition offering, that it would not appeal to the footballing public. On the evidence of year one, such concerns have all but disappeared.

But how wrong were the sceptics? Not only was the inaugural season successful and very exciting, but it also made the Europa League stronger and more coveted. The Europa is now number two in the portfolio and what’s more, the Conference made glory (something clubs have often forgotten in the pursuit of financial reward) fashionable again.

If there has ever been an ambassador for the idea of relentlessly striving for silverware, it is the Mourinho, so UEFA had just the right man heading towards Tirana. The one-time “special one” (he has asked not to be referred by this label) may no longer be at the cutting edge and may have been usurped by the new age of smart-thinking Pep and Klopp, but he is still an avid collector of footballing objet d’art. For Mourinho, a cup is a cup is a cup and he has now won 21 major prizes (plus other lesser honours). He claimed his players had made history, but he too created a little bit of notable achievement – the first and only man to win all three of the current UEFA trophies.

The Conference League has reminded us Europe’s rich footballing heritage goes beyond clubs propped up by nation states and billionaires.

For Roma, winning was clearly a relief and sparked immense joy in Tirana and back home in Rome. Their last trophy of any kind was in 2008 when they lifted the Coppa italia and their last scudetto was won in 2001. Roma have been champions of Italy just three times, a paltry roll of honour for such a big club. Now, people are wondering if Mourinho could win Serie A in this post-Juve period. Italy has long needed its big clubs to rediscover their power at home and in Europe. The Milan duo have gone through a painful process and have won the last two scudettos, can Roma do likewise and start to become a force?

As for UEFA, they must be pleased and may question the choice of Tirana as the final venue. The limited capacity of the Arena Kombëtan meant less than 20,000 saw the game, but giving it to Albania was not inappropriate and underlined the need to remove some of the elitisim in football. They have already awarded the 2023 final to the Sinobo Stadium in Prague, a modest 20,000 arena.

The competition itself may not have seen the participation of many really top clubs – the last 24 included just four from Europe’s big five leagues –  but there were four former European champions in Feyenoord (1970), Celtic (1967), PSV Eindhoven (1988) and Marseille (1993) taking part. Little wonder that one reporter noted that, “it felt like a final from old Europe”.

Along with the Europa, the Conference reminded us European football’s rich heritage has not always revolved around clubs with nation states or oil men propping them up. We also know more about players like Cyriel Dessers of Feyenoord, Ola Solbakken of Bodø/Glimt and Tammy Abraham of Roma and late of Chelsea.

If we come to terms with the idea that a team like Feyenoord and Celtic will never win the Champions League while corporate football rules the roost, then we need to ensure UEFA’s other competitions have as much relevance and prestige. Nobody in Rome will think twice about how important the Conference League is on the morning after the Giallorossi became the first Italian side to win a UEFA prize since 2010 – when a certain José Mourinho’s Inter completed the treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. Roma and Mourinho are back, and UEFA’s decision to add a third gateway to Europe was heartily endorsed. An emotional Mourinho held up five fingers at the end of the game to signal he had just won his fifth European prize, an incredible achievement. Or was it to indicate he had ended a five-year barren spell without a trophy?