The Europa League is often seen as the Champions League’s chubby, unloved little brother, and while the fact that there was no English side present for the first time in 16 years at the quarter-final stage of the competition was quickly hailed as the death of football as we know it by the more reactionary members of the football media, Europe’s second tier competition has helped to soften the blow somewhat by providing three quarter-finalists in the shape of Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle – is this merely a quirk of circumstance or a sign that there’s life in the old dog yet?
Without trying to nail my position to the mast as some sort of footballing hipster, it’s clear that the Europa League has quickly become the choice of many fans out there when looking for entertaining neutral fare. Sure, we’ll watch the Champions League out of some indebted loyalty to their glorious theme tune and the belief that we may miss out when a big game actually delivers on all of the pre-match hype, but these are rare occasions and like with any sport-related love affair, I don’t mind saying that I happen to enjoy cheating on Thursday nights with its uglier cousin. The games are more evenly poised, the styles more distinct and in terms of pure unadulterated excitement, it almost always delivers.
There’s also the point that we English sides happen to be rather good at this particular competition. In its various incarnations, it always seems to lend itself to the underdog which is a delightful thing to see. While Tony Pulis may have never really got into the spirit of things, not even naming a full bench and making eleven changes in an away game at Valencia last season, and both Martin O’Neill and Harry Redknapp showed a disdain bordering on the absurd at Aston Villa and Tottenham, seeing the likes of a rubbish Middlesbrough side make the final in 2005-6 by playing their throwback brand of chucking the kitchen sink at opponents and playing five up front, and Fulham beat Juventus on their mazy run to the final against Atletico Madrid four years later, this is a tournament that celebrates the also-ran.
Of course, they give in to craven commercial interests as much as the next competition, but there’s a sense of fun here that’s missing from the Champions League and having three teams in the last eight makes a mockery of the naysayers that were sharpening their knives just last week about the quality of English football being on the decline. The same rich faces challenging for the same trophy every year – when did that become everyone’s idea of entertainment?
When you take a sample size of one season, you’re just leaving yourself open to be disappointed, particularly when the Premier League machine leaves you to believe we are in possession of the best and brightest league in all the land, complete with world-class players, end-to-end excitement and more drama than Pat Butcher could throw an earring at. It’s simply devoid of context. Yes, Manchester City are very good, but are they great? Not on your nelly. Neither are Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or any other side that will compete in Europe’s elite competition for the next few years.
Football is cyclical and sweeping conclusions simply cannot be drawn on the basis of one admittedly disappointing season for English sides. The Turkish league is not better than the Premier League just because Galatasaray made the last eight, while Napoli, currently second in Serie A, were humbled 5-0 on aggregate by little known Viktoria Plzen in the Europa League first knockout stage, while they also qualified above Atletico Madrid in the group stages. Leagues peak and trough, and while English sides have avoided being beaten by a team that sounds like an obscure Bond girl for now, there’s no guarantee that they’ll carry on in the same vein.
More to the point, the three representatives England have left in the Europa League all stand a reasonably good chance of winning the darn thing. Newcastle have the most difficult of the three ties against Benfica over two legs, while Chelsea and Tottenham have been dealt favourable draws at home to Rubin Kazan and Basel in the first legs. The unpredictable nature of the competition keeps you firmly on your toes, which is a lovely change of pace from the monotonous brilliance of the Champions League. At this stage, literally every side stands a good chance of taking home a piece of silverware.
At the moment, Chelsea are a side in transition with a deeply unpopular interim manager and battling for a top four place while sat in third. Tottenham have blown their points lead over Arsenal in a customarily self-inflicted and completely avoidable fashion, but they still occupy fourth. While Newcastle have been battling on the fringes of a relegation battle after finishing 5th last season and are way down in 13th, just six points above the drop zone but revitalised by their January acquisitions. They are all deeply flawed sides, just like their Champions League counterparts (of which Chelsea were one initially), yet the Europa League seems to embrace flaws allowing for more open and less cagey affairs.
The flip side of this is that the Europa League success story this season more than anything does signify the decrease in quality of the top flight, that English sides have found their level, in Europe’s second division, but there is no God given right that the tremendous run which Premier League has had in terms of semi-finalists and finalists in the Champions League in recent years should continue for ever.
But for the time being, salvation has been found while the Premier League isn’t at its strongest and it’s called the Europa League. This ode to the competition is a riposte to the snide remarks that are often associated with the competition. An arrogance born out of being mollycoddled on success for far too long. A spell in the wilderness in Europe’s second tier could be just the tonic for the time being. Other leagues have caught up while the English game has stalled, but instead of seeing that as something negative to hold onto, shouldn’t we we just be pleased by the unpredictable nature of what lies ahead? Success has more than one route, but the satisfaction gleaned from a surprise triumph rather than an expected one is what being a football fan is all about.
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