The Europa League as a tournament is getting increasingly unfavourable reviews over the past couple of years, with many managers at the top clubs in the group stage complaining of too many fixtures (although there are only two more games to be played in the Europa League than in the Champions’ League) and long away journeys across Europe, with teams from Ireland to Greece to Sweden to Russia taking part.
Those complainants, though, are missing the point. To a football romantic, away trips to Malta or Slovenia (sorry, Rangers fans) are what European football is all about – playing football around Europe. Tell me, how boring and hypocritical would it be to stage a European Champions’ League just for the clubs of England, France, Holland, Spain, Germany and Italy? Ask some of the biggest names not in Europe this season: Liverpool, Roma, Sevilla, Galataseray, Rangers. They’ll all tell you they’d rather be making the trip to Legia Warsaw than watching it on TV.
For Tottenham Hotspur, this year’s Europa League was clearly initially viewed within the club as a distraction, an obstacle on their path back to fourth place in the more important Premier League. And while everyone appreciates their need to force their way back into the Champions’ League if they are to advance, Spurs themselves are waking up to the beautiful opportunity the Europa League has presented them with.
Harry Redknapp stated at the start of the season that the Europa League was not a priority for Spurs, and re-affirmed his stance by leaving both first-choice ‘keeper Brad Friedel and star playmaker Rafael van der Vaart out of his 25-man senior squad. Although clubs are required to select a 25-man squad from which they are to choose their Europa League teams, they may also register a B-list of players under the age of 21 who have been with the club more than three years. Redknapp’s extensive B-list has so far provided the bulk of the players he has used in Europe.
Spurs’ youngsters are benefitting massively from this precious opportunity. The team which featured in the second leg of the playoff with Hearts was built around youth-team players. Young striker Harry Kane somewhat outperformed his disinterested strike partner Roman Pavlyuchenko. Andros Townsend was a bundle of energy down the left flank. Jake Livermore and Ryan Fredericks controlled the midfield. There were opportunities for several more of the next generation in the away tie with PAOK, in which Giovani, Iago Falque and Tom Carroll started.
Tonight’s clash with Shamrock Rovers at White Hart Lane will see this trend continued, although this time Redknapp will seek to gain two advantages from the game – not only will he give his starlets more invaluable European experience, he will also use the game to give some fringe senior players, and a few returning from injury, a chance to show themselves worthy of a place in the squad for the North London Derby on Sunday.
Steven Pienaar, Aaron Lennon and Danny Rose are all set to feature alongside the likes of Kane, Townsend et al as Redknapp checks their progress in their return from injuries. Pavlyuchenko and Sebastien Bassong are also expected to appear, having played alongside the youngsters in both the Hearts and PAOK games.
The Europa League may be viewed as a distraction by many, but at Spurs, it is starting to be seen as a more important competition than the club had expected. Redknapp can rotate his squad, evaluate promising talents and reserve players in competitive scenarios, while still bringing in some extra revenue from gate receipts and prize money. Perhaps being part of Europe’s second-tier tournament isn’t such a drag after all.
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