Conference League: Mourinho’s trophy?

THERE ARE some big names still in the Conference League, probably bigger than UEFA expected, and three of the clubs are past winners of the European Cup/Champions League: PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and Marseille. Furthermore, Leicester City and Roma are also still involved, making it a reasonable last eight.

While Leicester will fancy their chances, they face PSV, but the Foxes are less consistent this season and are currently 10th in the Premier. They probably expected better after winning the FA Cup in 2021. PSV are not the force of old, but they are second in the Eredivisie and just two points behind Ajax. Their line-up is likely to include the sought-after winger, Cody Gakpo. The 22 year-old has netted 16 goals this season and is being eyed by Premier League clubs, including Arsenal. This is a tie that could go either way. 

PSV’s stablemate, Feyenoord, face Slavia Prague for the second time after meeting them twice in the group stage.  Slavia, who have had reputational problems due to accusations of racism on the pitch, are are just one point behind Viktoria Plzen in the Czech First League and are capable of surprising a few people.

One team that could emerge as favourites for the inaugural Conference League is Marseille (OM), no strangers to European success in recent years and now second in Ligue 1 but 12 points worse off than leaders Paris Saint-Germain. OM face PAOK and should be too strong for the Greek side. Marseille have an Arsenal player on loan in the form of William Saliba, who has been in excellent form this year.

The other quarter final is between Bodo/Glimt of Norway and Roma. These two sides met earlier this season and José Mourinho’s Roma were beaten 6-1, the worst defeat in the managerial career of the “special one”. One would assume that Roma won’t get fooled again and Mourinho may just see the Conference League as an ideal way to end what has been a patchy first season in the Italian capital. Roma are considered to be favourites to win the competition.

Mourinho always sees the value of winning silverware and no matter how unimportant some people think the competition is, he will be keen to add to his haul of major prizes. Roma have spurned the chance of challenging for a Champions League place in a campaign in which Juventus have been transitioning, but they have been in good form recently and are unbeaten in nine Serie A games, including a 3-0 win against Lazio in the Rome derby. What’s more, their € 40 million signing, Tammy Abraham, who joined from Chelsea, has proved to be an excellent acquisition, scoring 23 goals.

The final is scheduled to be hosted in Tirana, but UEFA are considering a switch due to possible political interference in football. Greece has been mentioned as a possible new venue.

The quality of the Conference last eight must be something of a relief for UEFA, but three of the quarter-finalists have arrived via the Europa League. Nevertheless, a decent winner will add to the credibility of the competition. 

Why bother? Tottenham, embarrassment and the Conference League

ANYONE who called Portuguese side Paços de Ferreira a “pub team” from a “farmers league” must be a little red-faced after Tottenham Hotspur lost their first leg tie in the Europa Conference League. 

The British media continually underestimate foreign teams and fans constantly dismiss opposition that doesn’t appear among the elite group of clubs? It’s also a little arrogant and portrays the English game as a. bunch of over-indulged children who have an air of entitlement.

Tottenham fielded a shadow 11, which was a surprise given their coach, Nuno Espirito Santo, is Portuguese. The team that so heroically beat Manchester City 1-0 on the opening weekend was discarded in favour of a mix of squad players and young debutants. Only Giovani Lo Celso, Matt Doherty and Christian Romero of the 14 players that featured against City were used in Portugal.

It has become an accepted part of the game that certain managers today disregard some cup competitions, but why field such a weakened team for the club’s only sniff of European football in 2021-22? For a start, it is cheating the fans, not least the Spurs travelling contingent. Secondly, it is devaluing UEFA’s new folly, and thirdly, it can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect towards the opposition.

Admittedly, there should be questions about UEFA’s new consolation prize competition, but if clubs do not want to enter, or consider it beneath their profile, then perhaps they should not bother playing in the first place. The Conference League may be relatively weak, but for some clubs, it is an exciting venture into the unknown. Spurs may have reached the Champions League final in 2019, but they are in the Conference on merit in 2021. Giving the impression “we’re too good for this” only serves to motivate the opposition and waste people’s time. Football is rife with this attitude, witness the way losing finalists now take their medals off after being awarded the runners-up prize. 

Furthermore, the Conference League provides a club still seeking its first trophy since 2008 with the genuine chance of lifting some silverware. They might see it as meagre pickings, but let’s be honest, have transitional Spurs got a realistic chance of a major prize? When you consider just how few teams across the football universe can be successful in any one season, surely a bauble of any sort represents a return? 

We can live with slightly weakened teams, perhaps resting one or two, but putting out a side that was the equivalent of a pre-season friendly at a local non-league club, was going way too far.

Spurs will probably get through to the next round, realising they need to bring back their big guns to ensure progress, but they certainly got caught with their pants down in Portugal. Winning is a habit, they say, which means taking each game seriously and fielding your best possible squad. To devalue first team games is, quite literally, an insult to the people who pay good money to watch their favourites. But they won’t be the last team this season to send out a scratch XI.