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.

Paris Saint-Germain’s excesses are just too great to be healthy

PARIS Saint-Germain look set to lose Kylian Mbappé this summer to Real Madrid, but the enormous wealth of the French champions means they will surely replace the young striker with another high profile signing. PSG’s financial advantages have brought them a multitude of top names and they currently have Neymar, Lionel Messi and Mbappé, but with their resources, PSG should be winning everything in France and challenging in Europe.

Their wage bill was € 500 million in 2020-21, around one third of the overall Ligue 1 total and more than € 350 million more than the nearest rival, Olympique Lyonnais, whose wages came to € 134 million. In 2020-21, PSG were beaten to the Ligue 1 title by Lille, whose player remuneration was around one sixth of the sum paid to the Parisians’ squad.

PSG’s finances make them the ultimate flat-track bully, but when they compete in the UEFA Champions League, they are found wanting almost every time. PSG’s problems stem from a lack of continuity around the management of the team and a culture of short-termism. Like Chelsea, their squad is a composition of various influences and they also have a penchant for attention-catching signings. Hence, the arrival of Messi and, for some peculiar reason, Sergio Ramos, both players past their prime, but undoubtedly enormously expensive.

The latest report from France’s DNCG (National Directorate of Control & Management), reveals French football was heavily impacted by the covid-19 pandemic in 2020-21. Only three clubs – Dijon, Reims and Saint-Étienne – made a profit and some of the losses were very eye-watering.

PSG’s loss, despite revenues of € 569 million (+2%), was € 225 million, the highest in France by some distance and the third highest in Europe after Barcelona (€ 550 million) and Inter Milan (€ 239 million). After PSG, whose losses climbed by € 100 million, the biggest loss in France was made by Lyon (-€ 109m), Marseille (-€ 76m) and Bordeaux (-€ 67m).

Like all French clubs, PSG’s matchday income was almost wiped out, but their bottom line figure was also influenced by a big reduction were in player trading which was down from a € 50 million profit to a near € 5 million loss. Profits on player sales are less important to PSG than rivals Monaco, Lyon and Lille, for obvious reasons, but there is clearly upside for the club if they choose to adopt a more commercial approach to transfers.

The club also incurred an increase in their already huge player costs. PSG’s wages were up by 21% to € 503 million in 2020-21, a wage-to-income of 88%.  According to L’Equipe, of the top 20 earners in French football, 18 are from PSG, with only Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder and Cesc Fabregas making up the list. The DNCG is keen to control the excesses of PSG, needless to say, and aims to stop any club having a wage bill of more than 70% of income. Another measure in progress is the restriction of debt, forbidding any club from having debt greater than share capital.

Broadcasting recovered in 2020-21 after the collapse of Ligue 1’s deal with Mediapro. Overall, TV accounts for 43% ( € 835 millon) of Ligue 1’s income and PSG generated over £ 200 million from this stream, a 54% rise on 2019-20. PSG have become very proficient commercially and their income totalled € 337 million. However, they are striving to push the envelope even further and hoped the acquisition of Messi would provide a significant boost.

Ligue 1’s total income was € 1.6 billion, but € 1.2 billion was paid out in wages and another € 119 million to agents and intermediaries. The league lost € 645 million, the total for Ligue 1 and 2 was a deficit of € 685 million.

PSG could be at the start of a new phase. The restrictions to be implemented will make it more difficult for the club to leverage its financial power and at some point, they will have to look at the way they build their teams. There’s also a good chance manager Mauricio Pochettino will move on and, with Mbappé and Ángel Di María certainly leaving, along with the possible departure of Neymar, times may be changing in Paris.

At the same time, France needs greater competition to improve the overall quality of Ligue 1. The country produces very good players on a regular basis, the national team are world champions and UEFA Nations League winners, but PSG are not always pushed enough. They’re still waiting for that first Champions League title, after all.