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 and the finals they probably hoped for

THERE were plenty of chin-stroking sceptics and prophets of doom predicting the devaluation of European club football when the UEFA Conference League was created. Most questioned why UEFA was introducing another competition when they had done their best to compromise their original franchise. However, with Roma (European Cup finalists 1984) and Feyenoord (European Cup winners 1970) meeting in the final in a few weeks, the governing body has a very decent game to launch the first final. In fact, wind the clock back 30 or 40 years, and this would have made a good UEFA Cup final or even a compelling European Cup final.

One thing has become clear this season is the role the Europa and Conference Leagues can play in providing genuine excitement and expectation outside of the elite group of clubs that usually compete in the Champions League’s latter stages. For a long time, there seems to have been no place for clubs who are not quite big or grand enough to rub shoulders with teams like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich on a regular basis. The season’s aspiration for a lot of clubs has become “Champions League or bust”, but in truth, this has been so vital because of the financial benefits, somewhere down the line, the idea of “glory” seems to have been mislaid.

When the UEFA Cup was at its peak, it was a very absorbing competition that was often very powerful and consisted of teams that had often gone close to being domestic champions. It was an important second competition in UEFA’s portfolio. The dear old UEFA Cup was weakened by the over-expansion of the European Cup as it morphed into the Champions League, while the diminishing status of domestic cup competitions meant the old Cup-Winners’ Cup often had a very weak field. The Conference League has, arguably, made the Europa stronger and also introduced another layer to create more winners, or at least, more clubs enjoying prolonged runs in Europe. For once, UEFA may have got it right, judging by the excitement that we’ve seen in both the Europa and Conference Leagues. It could be UEFA have finally realised that the greed-orientated growth of the Champions League did more damage than good to the bigger picture.

Looking at the three competitions, the final line-up is really quite appetising: Liverpool versus Real Madrid in the Champions League; Eintracht Frankfurt versus Rangers in the Europa; and Roma-Feyenoord in the Conference. The passion of the crowds at West Ham, Frankfurt and Rangers underlined just how engaged people were in the prospect of a European final. Nobody was taking these games lightly.

As for the Champions League, UEFA could not have wished for more: the club that has been related to the competition since the concept’s inception, Real Madrid, against the English club with the best record. England versus Spain, as opposed to an all-England final that nobody outside Liverpool and Manchester really wanted. What’s more, the game is now in Paris, the birthplace of the European Cup, rather than St. Petersburg.

UEFA may have realised that over-expansion of the Champions League did more harm than good to the governing body’s competition portfolio.

If there are two clubs that can bring out their best form when all around might not be rosy, it is Real Madrid and Liverpool. Real are La Liga champions, but nobody appears totally convinced about their current side. Real Madrid have already lost four games on their way to the final, including one leg in each of the knockout rounds. Only three teams have lost more games, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus (2002) and AC Milan (2003) all defeated five times en route to the competition’s climax.

Liverpool, of course, are fighting on all fronts and the pursuit of the “quadruple” has become the new narrative just as the “treble” was in 1977. It’s fascinating to see how some segments of the media have changed their tune about one team winning everything, suggesting only a year ago that Manchester City sweeping-up would be a bad thing, while the nation should now get behind Liverpool because they are a fine outfit. That may be true, but Monopolies are boring, and nobody apart from the Reds of Anfield will be hoping Jürgen Klopp’s team pull-off an unprecedented haul of trophies in 2021-22.

UEFA will no doubt benefit from a showcase final involving two of the best supported clubs in world football. From a commercial perspective, Real and Liverpool will surely generate more income and media interest than an all-Premier tie or an all-Spanish final. The other aspect is the monotony of another Liverpool-Manchester City clash this season. This will be the sixth England versus Spain final and only once (1981, Liverpool 1 Real Madrid 0) has the result gone in England’s favour. The others include two Manchester United-Barcelona setbacks (2009 and 2011), Barca beating Arsenal (2006) and Real overcoming Liverpool in 2018.

In the past decade, there have been 11 different finalists in the Champions League, but only one new winner (Chelsea in 2012). Interestingly, of the so-called “new money” clubs, the Londoners are so far the only winners of the competition – Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are still toiling away, invariably going out in dramatic circumstances each year as evidenced in PSG and City’s capitulations at the hands of Real Madrid. Furthermore, while Real have won the Champions League four times in the past 10 years, Barcelona, their rivals, have not lifted the big prize more than once, in 2015. Pep Guardiola, the man hired to make his employer – at Bayern and Manchester City – champions of Europe, has not won the trophy since 2011.

It’s clear that both Real Madrid and Liverpool know how to expertly handle the complexities of the Champions League and seem to have an extra quality that enables them to negotiate the competition at a crucial stage. Conversely, PSG and City seem to be unable to keep their nerve when it matters. At some stage, both may win the Champions League, but they will surely have to make sure they don’t come up against wily campaigners like this year’s finalists.  

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…