With this seasons fall of the Manchester clubs into UEFA’s secondary competition, widespread English attention in the week has spanned one more day than it might have done. With no disrespect to Stoke City who were competing in the competition as recently as February, interest in the Europa League is far greater these days simply because City and United command so much more respect in the international fabric of the game.
Consequently, most of us felt it would be plain sailing and a cruise for the Red and Blue halves of Manchester to reach the final of the competition that will be contested in the National Stadium in Bucharest in May. Whilst this appealing prospect may still be the case, both clubs suffered surprising first leg defeats last week at the hands of Sporting Lisbon and Athletic Bilbao.
Whilst both victories were justified, they were still considered as shock defeats and went against the predictions of many an English punditry panel in the lead up to Thursday’s encounters. So let us ask ourselves the question. Are we snobs when it comes to the Europa League and the quality of the opposition?
To start, if you are an avid day-to-day viewer of Sky Sports News, you would have witnessed a reporter gauging the opinions of Manchester City supporters in Lisbon before the game at the Jose Alvalade on Thursday evening. Whilst Citizens fans have good reason to feel confident about most games these days, considering the depth and quality of their squad, every fan interviewed predicted a whitewash amidst feeling overly confident about the tie in general. This arrogance left a bad taste in the mouth and suggested Lisbon were already beaten, despite an outstanding home record in Europe.
Having just defeated national champions FC Porto by six goals to one on aggregate, the fourth placed Lisbon-based side were deemed just the next Portuguese giants to receive a beating. However, it didn’t turn out that way, and Sa Pinto’s side reminded everyone how unpredictable football can be; the beauty of the game perhaps.
Later on that evening, the interest built as a lesser-known Athletic Bilbao outfit broke the mould at Old Trafford by playing an expansive game and bucking the trend of teams that get intimidated by the trip to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. In an eye-catching performance, the fluidity of the Spanish game and talents such as Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente showcasing their skill particularly represented the Basque side upsetting the applecart in the eyes of many, achieving not only a standout result, but a surprising one.
Whilst the managers do their homework and keep their feet more firmly on the ground than us as fans and pundits, with Mancini and Ferguson warning of tricky ties, we all still predicted first leg victories and a less watchable second leg whereby the teams would simply play out a game that had already been won.
Consequently, the games are finely balanced and will receive the utmost attention at the Etihad and San Mames next time out. If you look at the current La Liga table, you will find Bilbao as low as seventh position, and yet they gave the current English leaders a real game whereby Ferguson even admitted they were the far better side.
Amidst the inevitable and seemingly never-ending debate surrounding the strength of the respective European leagues and Guillem Balague immaturely tweeting that he told us La Liga was better after all, many of us may need to revise our opinions that the Europa League will be a stroll for the Manchester persuasion.
Most sides must possess something special to have reached this stage, and it may just pan out that a lesser known side goes on a majestic run of form. Perhaps an attitude of snobbery was the popular one subscribed to by foreign press during Fulham’s meteoric rise to the Europa League Final in 2010. One of England’s lesser known and less fashionable outfits went all the way to Hamburg defeating the likes of Juventus despite an inferior-looking squad on paper and the tables may have been turned in relation to the Manchester clubs this campaign.
With all yet to play for in the second legs, any complacency amongst players and fans would have lessened so and it is certainly time to wake up to the prospect that Europa League opposition isn’t as weak as perhaps first assumed.
Would we admit we thought the Europa League would have been much easier for the Manchester clubs? Is there such snobbery? Follow me @ http://twitter.com/Taylor_Will1989