Are Tottenham taking a risk in the Europa League?

Andre Villas-Boas, Tottenham HotspurTottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas has once again reiterated his desire to lead the club to European glory again this season and he looks set to name another strong looking line-up in the team’s upcoming clash against Greek outfit Panathinaikos, but is he taking something of a gamble to taking the competition so seriously?

The club were handed a group stage entry position this term as a knock-on effect of Chelsea winning the Champions League last season and they’ve only had one game in the competition to date so far, at home to Lazio, so in that regard it is somewhat difficult to truly tell how the Portuguese boss is approaching it. However, it seems as if he’s in it to win it so to speak this season and repeat the feat he achieved in guiding Porto to the trophy back in 2010 before moving to Stamford Bridge later that summer for his ill-fated reign at Stamford Bridge.

Against the Italian side, while Hugo Lloris may have been handed his first start at the club in place of Brad Fridel and Kyle Naughton coming in at left-back for the injured Benoit Assou-Ekotto, it was pretty much as close as you could get to their first choice starting eleven, with only Younes Kaboul and Emmanuel Adebayor perhaps coming into contention when they both return from their spell out on the treatment table.

All the talk since he took over at White Hart Lane in the summer has been focused on winning silverware, not finishing fourth in the league, so often deemed as tantamount to success by large swathes of Arsenal supporters these days and I for one welcome the ambitious approach it displays and Tottenham are perfectly capable of going deep into the competition should they treat it seriously, I just wish more teams would follow suit.

The sheer amount of managers that treat the Europa League with disdain is shocking; they treat it as a distraction to their domestic campaign, a needless disruption to the real business of finishing in the top eight in the Premier League. The money that the Champions League brings with it by qualifying for it year on year is obviously a huge advantage and not to be missed out on if you have the chance of finishing in the top four, but somewhere along the way how we judge success has become distorted, it’s no longer measured by something tangible such as silverware, but what your club might be able to do next year and next season should they reinvest well enough.

We’ve seen in the past Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa side bust a gut and spend huge sums of money to finish 6th in the league three years running, which in itself was a great achievement, only to then go and name weakened sides in the Europa League, which makes you think, what was the whole point of last season for then?

Why qualify for a competition only to then disregard it as soon as you have a chance to play in it? Portuguese and Spanish clubs do well precisely because they take the opposite viewpoint; they realise that they don’t stand much chance of domestic success with Barcelona and Real Madrid around, so this is there one chance of winning a trophy every season and that’s the approach some English clubs would be better served looking to adopt.

While Brendan Rodgers has been naming weakened sides in it this season at Liverpool, with a first-team squad of just 19 players to choose from, he doesn’t really have much else choice, while Alan Pardew with his recent defensive injury crisis at Newcastle is in a similar boat, but there’s no reason that if they qualify out of the tricky groups stages that they couldn’t do well in the latter stages and make a real impact.

Last term Tony Pulis’ Stoke side were superb in the earlier rounds but the affect it was having on their league from was hugely noticeable and he then decided to field a weakened side away at Valencia in the first knock-out phase with the deficit at just 1-0. During that game, the Spanish side were there for the taking, but Pulis couldn’t even fill a subs bench, naming ten changes and just four subs, with only Robert Huth deemed a guaranteed first-team regular in the starting side.

It was embarrassing and Pulis left nine players at home to kick their heels in frustration, seemingly looking forward to the prospect of facing Swansea at home three days later instead. Perhaps I’m romanticising European competition too much, but it just seemed like a wasted opportunity to do something special for a club that doesn’t often get the opportunity to give its fans much to shout about.

They limped out of the competition with a 1-0 defeat at the Mestalla, but honestly, how much better does it get for Stoke? Aren’t occasions like the one in question what the club and its fan-base have been hoping and dreaming for after all those years spent in the doldrums of the lower leagues?

In such financially testing times as these, the common football fan doesn’t have all that much disposable income to spend on going to games, let alone trips abroad, so imagine their frustration at seeing a largely second-string side turn out in what represented the biggest game in their recent history? A pretty flawed and defensively suspect Valencia side went all the way to the semi-final stage before being knocked out by the side that would go on to win the tournament, Atletico Madrid.

Of course, playing a strong line-up now in Europe may hinder your side further down the home straight and key players may grow tired or jaded at the business end of a long campaign, but I honestly don’t see the problem this early on in the season playing your strongest side most weeks no matter what the competition. They’re professional athletes after all, playing 40-odd games a season shouldn’t be that tough.

Last season Harry Redknapp, and to a lesser extent Roberto Mancini’s handling of  a clearly knackered David Silva after the festive period, were called into question, with many slamming how much football they had played and that their respective squads simply hadn’t been rotated enough to keep the side fresh. This is why rotating your side if you get the chance in the ‘easier’ home games around January and afterwards is crucial the later the campaign goes on, but not quite at this stage of the season.

The Europe League is often seen as the annoying younger sibling to the all-consuming money monster that is the Champions League, but for my money, it’s more unpredictable, exciting, entertaining and enjoyable than anything the largely predictable so-called premier competition has to offer, where the same teams reach the semi-final stages every year.

Villas-Boas has become an easy target for the media simply by virtue of not being Harry Redknapp, a man who they all have an irrational love for it seems, so a stick is often used to beat him with and double-standards and hypocrisy are common place, but to chastise a manager for treating a winnable competition with the respect it deserves is ridiculous. Playing to win it is the right approach that Tottenham should be looking to take this season and the 34-year-old manager should be applauded rather than criticised.

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