The Europa League should act as a stepping stone to greater things, an alternative and in some cases a very good opportunity for a high-profile trophy, even if it isn’t viewed as such in England. But how many clubs in England, specifically those without any great outside investment, can take Uefa’ secondary competition as seriously as they may wish to? Is there any realistic chance of advancing a few steps up the Premier League ladder?
Newcastle have not started this Premier League campaign as brightly as they did last season. Yes, the players are all there, but can anyone look at them as realistic contenders for a top four place? And here’s the thing: the Europa League isn’t really weighing too heavily on Alan Pardew’s squad. He’s has so far fielded a noticeably different XI from his regular line up for league games, and yet it’s a case of them not really moving forward.
Everyone in the league strives for top four—even the Venky’s group were sort of aware of it’s importance, although their aim of “finishing fourth or fifth” may discredit that entirely. When Tottenham landed a Champions League place there were wild celebrations, accentuated mostly by David Bentley and his hint of inappropriate behaviour after that game against Manchester City. But Spurs went all guns blazing, they fielded their strongest team, their tore into Inter Milan, advanced to the knockout phase with surprising ease, and wanted more of the same the following season.
The Europa League is nothing even remotely in the same ballpark. Yes, Spurs were hampered in their attempts to secure Champions League qualification again, arguably because of their participation in the competition, but the Europa League seems to be a road block on teams’ journey from fifth or sixth to top four.
The real problem with the competition is it’s lack of financial gain. Even those who have no interest or ability in winning the Champions League want in because of it’s financial benefits. But Uefa’s second competition offers very little in comparison. That song about Thursdays and channel 5 may be more significant than just throwaway mocking. Sky have no interest in the competition, no one really watches channel 5, and ESPN in this country is such a far cry from the American product that many people will be ditching that channel in the near future. So what if football is played on a Thursday night—the Americans have no problem with it. The issue is that there is no financial reward for it.
Newcastle had a squad good enough the fifth place last season, perhaps even more when you look at how poor and inconsistent most were in the league. But the Europa League has given them nothing from which to build on. Where are the reinforcements to turn a fifth place team into a Champions League team?
Some fans have criticised Daniel Levy for his lack of spending of the Champions League money and the need to reinforce the charge for another round at Europe’s head table. But the rest in the Champions League have that option, they can afford to spend that little bit more to secure good players.
The structure of the Europa League doesn’t do it any favours, either. Fulham had to work through a schedule that was over half of what the Premier League schedule is, and they still made it to the final and gave it a real go against Atletico.
But with no intended disrespect to teams such as Fulham, maybe that’s the problem. There’s no glamour in the Europa League, and many fans who are Champions League ’regulars’ bemoan the group stages and how boring and pedestrian they can be. There’s no excitement, even though teams like Juventus, Milan, Bayern Munich, and both Manchester clubs took part in the Europa League/Uefa Cup. The makeover that Uefa gave the competition really hasn’t done too much; there’s no real incentive for teams to go all out in a Europa League game.
With the example of Newcastle once more, the Premier League would like to see them move that step up and onto a platform where they are regularly contesting for a Champions League place. But with the added weight of another cup competition and no backing to improve the squad, aren’t they in danger of losing their best players to clubs who are regulars among Europe’s elite? And this is a view specifically for the Premier League.
It’s perhaps a greater indication of the power of Champions League football. Everyone wants European football, but not that cheap alternative. Everyone wants to win a trophy, but they’d rather sacrifice a trip to Wembley if a top four place is within touching distance.
Uefa’s makeover really isn’t doing the trick, and you’ve got to hope that it was the start for something more rather than just the end product we’re currently seeing. Give the winner of the competition a place in the group stages of the Champions League, at least that way they can be ensured of a huge financial injection following their cup win.