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.

The most dominant football teams in Europe

THE popular myth is that the Premier League is won by the same team virtually every year, but in the past decade, five teams have won the title: Manchester United, Chelsea, Leicester, Manchester City and Liverpool. The highest number of clubs that have won a domestic title in the period 2012-13 to 2021-22 in any country is six, so it doesn’t get much more open than the Premier.

However, ask the same question in a few years and the answer will almost certainly be different – we will see the true effect of Manchester City’s dominance in the coming seasons. But at the moment, there are quite a few leagues that have a far higher level of one-club superiority across Europe. These include Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Moldova, Scotland and Wales.

If English football was so very predictable, it is doubtful the crowds would continue to grow and it is clear that demand for the game appears to show no sign of diminishing. In fact, in 2021-22, Premier crowds increased to an average of 39,600 while most other leagues, for various reasons including restricted attendances, actually fell from pre-Covid levels. The 2022-23 campaign will provide a far more accurate picture, but Premier football came out of lockdown with public appetite as strong as ever. We are still waiting for that bubble to burst.

The club with the longest period of superiority – in terms of titles won – is Ludogorets from Razgrad in Bulgaria. Although they come from a city of barely 35,000 people, they have won their domestic league 11 years in a row and finished 12 points clear of second-placed CSKA Sofia. They also reached the semi-final of the Bulgarian Cup and played 14 games in Europe – eight in the Champions League and another six in the Europa League. Ludogorets are quite unpopular in Bulgaria and there are always rumours and suspicions suggesting they are run by organised crime and that corruption prevails across Bulgarian sport. But Ludogorets are actually owned by influential oligarch Kiril Domuschiev, a shipping magnate who leads the country’s chamber of commerce.

In Germany, Bayern Munich have had sole possession of the Bundesliga, with 10 consecutive titles. Bayern have won 17 trophies in 10 years, including two Champions Leagues. The last side to win the Bundesliga other than Bayern was Borussia Dortmund in 2012, whose manager was none other than Jürgen Klopp. Bayern’s hold on German football is becoming a little worn at the edges and they desperately need greater competition, as do Paris Saint-Germain in France.

Ludogorets and Bayern are the only clubs who have enjoyed a 100% success rate over the past 10 years. There are four nine times winners including Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb, Sheriff Tiraspol and Celtic and a cluster of clubs with eight wins under their belt: Qarabag, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiacos, Juventus and New Saints.

Nine champions in Europe were also cup winners in 2021-22 – Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Red Star Belgrade, Ferencvaros, Lincoln Red Imps, Qarabag, Sheriff, La Fiorita and New Saints all won their respective doubles.

The club with the biggest margin of success in 2021-22 was Zrinjski Mostar, who won the league in Bosnia & Herzegovina by a substantial 27 points. They won 26 of their 33 games and lost just once and conceded a mere 14 goals. The next highest was recorded by New Saints in Wales, a margin of 21 points.

Some countries have more than one big fish, such as in Serbia, where Red Star Belgrade and their neighbours Partizan stand head and shoulders above the rest. In 10 years, Red Star have won seven and Partizan three and this season, the margin was just two points. Furthermore, Red Star completed the double by beating Partizan 2-1 in the cup final.

These clubs may be giants in their own leagues, but the imbalances in European football mean that most champions cannot compete with the continent’s elite institutions. Although most of the big clubs seem well established and comfortable, things can suddenly shift. The declines of Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan in recent years remind us that nothing lasts forever, so despite wealth, success and heritage, even the very biggest can fall from their pedestals. Remember that 50 years ago, clubs like Red Star Belgrade, Celtic and Ferencvaros were among the most formidable in Europe. Nevertheless, the champions of 2021-22, whoever they are and wherever they might be, deserve due respect from the football community.