Rightly or wrongly, the Europa League has an awfully bad reputation in England. The something of nothing trophy that ruins seasons with some ridiculous Thursday – Sunday scheduling that is seemingly so mind boggling no one has realised that it really isn’t that different from playing Wednesday to Saturday games.
Any issues with the Europa League is an incredibly English concern. Since it’s re-brand and re-boot in time for the 2009-10 season, the two English clubs to progress to the final were Fulham, who gallantly made it to the final in its inaugural year beating the likes of Juventus on their way to defeat in the final against Atletico Madrid, and Chelsea who won the competition during their own Benitez revival. Two countries who tend to seize the Europa League as a chance for European silverware are Portugal and Spain.
Since the 09-10 season Portugal have had 4 finalists, including one all Portuguese final in 2011. Spain on the other hand have contributed 5 finalists, resulting in winning the competition 3 times and in Sevilla have the reigning Europa League champions for the last 2 seasons. The Europa League doesn’t present itself as a burden, more of a chance to deliver success on the European stage and as a means of reinforcing co-efficiency points, crucial to any club outside of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain and the Top 2 in Portugal.
This year though the knock out phases of the Europa League has brought us some incredible draws. Napoli vs. Villarreal, Tottenham vs. Fiorentina, Marseille vs. Athletic Bilbao, Lazio vs. Galatasaray and Borussia Dortmund vs. Porto. These are all potential Champions League ties. They aren’t some watered down affair of minnows and obscure teams that some perceive to be endemic of the Europa League.
With no seedings, no geographical limits, the Europa League draw was always going to be tasty this season and it is through the random chance of a draw that the Europa League has finally captured the hearts and minds of English football fans. May the Europa League presents – Dortmund vs. Tottenham and Liverpool vs. Manchester United.
First up, let’s talk about potentially the best tie of the Last 16. Dortmund vs. Spurs. Actually, you could even potentially stretch as far and say that this is the most exciting and intriguing tie so far in European football. A massive claim? Perhaps, but both sides are currently playing at the peak of their powers and this two legged affair could be a hell of a game.
Thomas Tuchel has re-invigorated Dortmund into some free scoring monster this season. 59 goals so far in the league (more already than last term), their Europa League journey started way back in the third qualifying round but a 3-0 aggregate defeat of Porto clearly emphases the strength of Dortmund in the Europa League and also the seriousness they are taking the competition. For Tottenham fans, Dortmund arguably presents the greatest test left in the competition with the winner likely to become favourites to go all the way to win the trophy in Basel. Whilst Tottenham with all their defensive solidarity and host of potential England internationals filling their ranks are quickly becoming any England fans second favourite team.
For any neutral fan, this Tottenham game certainly captures the imagination. These two upstarts in their respective leagues with their unlikely title tilts this season going toe to toe in Europe would normally be the tie of the round but the Europa League didn’t just stop there. It delivered the mother of all domestic rivalries to the European stage – Liverpool vs. Manchester United.
It is amazing to think that these two clubs have never met in European competition. Whilst their respective periods of success don’t clash directly, even in the last 10 years, Chelsea vs. Liverpool or Manchester United has had plenty of European airing.
Players, fans and journalists always talk of Anfield on a European night. The atmosphere, the history. The imagery is highly provocative, even with such disappointments as Liverpool’s Champions League exit last season; the old stadium has become folkloric of the good times for Liverpool. Old Trafford itself has also seen plenty of thrills and spills in United’s pursuit of European glory and the last round of the Europa League certainly saw Old Trafford bouncing against FC Midtjyland, so atmosphere certainly won’t be an issue for either leg. The greatest shame in all of this is that neither squad is what they once were. The stage is set for a great European tie but it is hard to know what side may or may not turn up for both Liverpool and Manchester United.
Come Thursday evening the Europa League will finally be the centre of attention in pubs and social clubs up and down the country. No longer will it prove to be mere back ground noise, sound tracking dart games and fruit machines up and down the country.
For clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United this season, it’s hard to know how much of an incentive the newly implemented place in the Champions League for the winner’s is proving with both sides coming up short in their pursuit for the Top 4. The Europa League though has thrown together two of the best two legged games of the football of the season, and maybe, just maybe, perceptions of the Europa League will start to change in this country.
I know for one that I am gutted that I will be working Thursday evening and reduced to a highlight show. Thursday night football shouldn’t be this good, so let’s embrace it.
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog