Although the Champions League has become by far the most efficient structure in the world of football for producing high-quality, high-stakes, highly entertaining fixtures that even the heights of the World Cup often fail to match, there is a sense of monopolisation about the European tournament.
For many years, the Premier League had the traditional top four of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, that was once dubbed by Alan Hansen as being unbreakable, and despite the fact the Merseyside club have been substituted for Manchester City, barring Everton and Tottenham sneaking over the qualifying line on a rare occurance, it seems that once again there is a power bloc at the summit of the English top flight that appears almost impossible to break.
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Although the Premier League will always be the most consistently competitive top tier division in European football, there is still a gulf in monetary terms and reputation between those finishing fourth place or higher, limiting the calibre of players clubs in the mini-league of teams just below are able to attract, weakening their chances to competitively improve.
But with news announced today that UEFA have confirmed their decision to allocate a spot in the continent’s most prestigious cup tournament for the winners of the Europa League from the year previous, we now have a small form of resistance to the cartels at the head of Europe’s top flights. The new rules will have a duel effect; firstly, as previously mentioned, giving smaller clubs a chance at breaking the barrier of Champions League qualification and reaping the financial, commercial and prestigious advantages that come with it, and secondly, it will make Europe’s second tier tournament a far more worthwhile competition.
It begs the question as to whether or not clubs like Liverpool should now be looking to make the best out of the Europa League, with the carrot of the promised land of club football at the end of it. It could well be the route that projects them back towards past glories, but at the same time, is it just another complication to an already hectic fixture list?
Although the reward for the Europa League may now be greater, it still does not change the fact it is an incredibly difficult competition to win, and there is a reason that there is an overall dislike for the tournament in England. Fulham’s fairytale run in the continent’s second tier during the 2008/2009 season may have left them with some fantastic nights that will live long in the memory of the fans, but getting to the final added a further 19 games to their campaign, with the after-effect being them sliding down the Premier League table and finishing up in 12th, having claimed 7th spot the year previous.
Alas, they had no silverware to show for their efforts abroad, and as Tottenham have found out this season, the tournament quickly becomes viewed as a pointless escapade upon one’s elimination. The added fixtures could well have been a factor in the North Londoners’ dip in form towards the business end of the season, that in effect allowed local rivals Arsenal to surpass them into Champions League qualification.
The fact is that the Premier League has become a far too intense competition in its own right for teams of a limited calibre in comparison to the top four to take the risk of committing fully to the Europa League. Final standings are often decided by a single point, as they have this season, or on goal difference, as they have in the past, but whereas the differences may be slight on a League table, the gulf in rewards between finishing up in fifth or fourth, or sixth or seventh, can often be enormous in terms of funding, commercial revenues and transfer policy.
This season, Brendan Rodgers dipped his toe in the proverbial water in regards to the Europa League, but quite rightly resisted the urge to fully commit, considering the limited strength of key departments of Liverpool’s roster. A lack of depth was undoubtedly the reason Newcastle have come unstuck this year, with the Magpies unable to successfully perform on two fronts, at one point compromising the maintenance of their Premier League status.
But will the added prize of Champions League football change perspectives of the Europa League in regards to next season? You can imagine that clubs might begin taking a serious interest as we approach March and February, but I still cannot foresee a dramatic change to the current practice of using bit-part players and youngsters in the earlier stages of the tournament
Overall, the cast of Europa League minnows, the likes of Young Boys, Hearts, and Gomel, whom Liverpool faced this season, are far too weak opposition to draw the big-name players and talismanic personnel, such as Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez, to the starting Xi for second tier continental fixtures.
Then again, it will all depend on relative league position. For example, should the Reds find themselves in and around 7th place again next season, it would suggest that with Premier League safety assured – which may seem trivial for a club of Liverpool’s stature, but is in fact the first aim of every top flight club no matter their size or reputation – the Anfield club may as well take a hit in terms of domestic standing as the Europa League offers the best opportunity to qualify for the Champions League.
But should Brendan Rodgers find himself in fifth place, he will suddenly be presented with a selection headache. Should he decide to push for fourth, considering the size of Liverpool’s squad and its overall quality, it will have to come at the expense of the Europa League. And thus we have a new dynamic to European qualification that managers will have to evaluate correctly, else implode their own chances of Champions League football.
Being realistic however, I cannot see the Merseyside outfit caught up in the battle for fourth spot next season. They finish the current campaign 12 points being Arsenal, and although I expect they will be able to close the gap next year, there are still intrinsic problems in the squad that cannot be fully addressed in the summer, with Brendan Rodgers’ transfer budget limited to around the £30million mark.
Yet, they could easily find the Europa League equally as challenging. Overall, I would argue that Tottenham’s roster is blessed with more first team strength and depth than Liverpool’s, but despite specific impetus put on the competition by Andre Villas-Boas, Spurs still came up short, and in some ways it is a tad embarrassing to the second string tournament that Chelsea, last season’s Champions League winners, made it through the knock-out stages with incredible ease, only coming up against a team of similar calibre in the final, but still easily casting them aside to lift the Europa League trophy.
I am not suggesting winning the Europa League is out of Liverpool’s reach, but it will take all of their might and resources to claim the European title, and should there be a Champions League regular such as Chelsea or Benfica in the mix, it may well be too tall an order for them. Furthermore, it will undoubtedly compromise their league position, and it will become a delicate balancing act for Brendan Rodgers.
Of course, if the risk pays off, the fans will not care where they end up in the Premier League on the final day of the season, but as previously stated, elimination from the tournament suddenly morphs it from the perspective of the fans as a complete waste of time, and losing in the latter stages or the final itself will hardly seem worth it if it comes at a cost of the Reds finishing up in the bottom half domestically – it could even lead to Rodgers’ position at the club coming under review.
Although I am a fan of the new rule, as it certainly adds some much needed incentive to the widely disliked Europa League, it does not in fact serve clubs of Liverpool’s stature particularly well. It becomes an either-or situation, and will cause hesitancy about whether to stick or twist, or what avenue to focus the Reds’ resources and talents on, with it almost certainly coming at the expense of the other.
Should Brendan Rodgers find his club in the latter stages of the Europa League, he will of course begin to pursue the title due to the rewards of Champions League qualification, but I would not expect to see any change in tactic of added importance from the perspective of the club any time soon, especially whilst the earlier rounds are rife with sub-quality teams from fringe European nations.
It does however present the opportunity for fairytale scenarios; clubs gaining a place in the Europa League through the FA Cup for example, and then going on to claim Champions League qualification in defiance of football’s natural hierarchy, or an even more extreme possibility – a club winning the Europa League only to be relegated, and thus find themselves playing Championship football and Champions League football in the same season.
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