Europa League. Is the competition an unwelcome distraction? Or just one in a whole line of excuses teams use to justify poor league displays?
There is certaintly a haziness over the value of the cup with sides not knowing how to approach it. Platini himself even appears confused as to whether it works after suggesting a 64 team Champions League to try and add some impetus to European football as a whole.
The blurred lines between the two European competitions already has been created at the knockout phases of the Europa League when 3rd place teams from the Champions League groups enter the trophy. Whilst finishing 3rd in the initial phases of the most elite option is frustrating, rewarding failure surely is a farcical idea, and should be scrapped immediately to restore dignity to the Europa League.
Thursday night football certaintly does not help the cause, it isolates the competition. If the trophy is not to become stale, then surely playing all European football all on the same evening would make sense. It would help psychologically help the players, and give them an increased rest period. They could then treat it with respect and the fans would still watch their team play, even if given a variety of options. Just because Barcelona may be playing AC Milan does not mean Tottenham fans suddenly have a dilemma whether to watch their team if they are on the same evening.
If we are to put the issues with the competition to one side, does the competition actually prove detrimental for the teams that enter it? There is no escaping the fact that is has an effect, with squads being tested to breaking point.
Newcastle this time round have had their squad tested to its very limit and have been littered with injuries as a result. Alan Pardew was quick to thank his supporters for their patience following Monday night’s 3-0 victory over Wigan, with the side suffering four league defeats in a row prior to this. It is not a mere coincidence that they happen to be in bad form as well as being in the Europa League, it has weighed down Newcastle. Pardew was quick to say as much in his post-match interview with Sky Sports saying about the Europa League “It’s really difficult puts us at a major disadvantage. Thursday to Sunday just doesn’t work. It’s a great competition hopefully we can give our fans some away trips in the New Year and something to shout about.”
He has a point too; it hardly seems fair when you consider that Newcastle had to travel to Belgium and back before facing West Ham a few weeks ago at St James’ Park. West Ham were far fresher and had longer to prepare for their visit to Tyneside. If the Magpies were to be able to handle both competitions then surely having an extra 24 hours rest is crucial. Earlier in the season they had to play Chelsea on the Saturday after a trip to Martimo with there being just a 48 hour recovery period for the players, and they were duly dispatched 2-0 at Stamford Bridge as a result.
Liverpool haven’t exactly sparkled either, struggling to strike a balance between the league and Europe, as they languish in 11th position. The striking problems at Anfield have made such outings even more painful for Rodgers’s side. They have had to call upon Luis Suarez in some of these ties to secure a positive result, when he needs to be rested as they can ill afford an injury or burn out to the on form Uruguayan. Birmingham City too were unable to take it within their stride in the Championship, and it ultimately cost them promotion. They had to fit extra games into what is an already gruelling 46 game campaign, before any potential playoffs. The team had completely run out of gas by the time they faced Blackpool in the semi-final of last season’s playoffs as the Tangerines brushed them aside.
Tottenham’s attitude to the competition had been to view it as a breeding ground to their young players such as Jake Livermore before they can be integrated into the first team. This has meant that Spurs were still able to register successful league campaigns, finishing 4th twice under Harry Redknapp. This tactic does not come without shortfalls though. For those fans that paid to see Tottenham field an understrength side in both the Ukraine and White Hart Lane in the last 32 in 2009, against Shaktar, were left dismayed. The supporters expressed their anger at their manager’s disregard for the competition. It certaintly wouldn’t be stupid to claim that Redknapp’s attitude to the Europa League played its part in a large section of Spurs fans not being all that devastated when the club parted ways with Harry ‘Houdini’ last season. So it shows that even if you keep all your players fresh rather than using them in the competition you come a cropper, the hangover the trophy provides for fixtures preceding it is unavoidable.
Similarly, a lot of Tottenham fans are worried that now AVB is taking the Europa League seriously it could cause their league form to suffer, which they desperately don’t want with the side surprisingly sitting in the top 4. The fans are aware that this season is as good a chance as ever to qualify for next seasons Champions League. If they are to avoid the curse of the Europa League they will need to heavily reinforce their squad. Essentially the Europa League is only worth the hassle if the team and its supporters accept the competition as the sole focus of their season, and this I feel is too much of a bitter pill to swallow.