Why is the Europa League so rubbish?

The Europa League is to the Champions League what honesty and sincerity is to the Serie A. It’s supposed to be, and used to be, important; but instead it’s insignificant and irrelevant. Europe’s secondary competition has fallen so far from grace that UEFA needed to send a memo to all managers asking them to “highlight the importance of participating”.

That really should not be the case. Although both have undergone a few name changes, the Europa League has been around for as long as the Champions League, since 1955. The competition is part of European football’s history and culture, and winning it should be a source of great pride.

One argument often levied to explain why it’s so inferior to the Champions League is that the teams aren’t good enough to make it interesting. For me, this argument does not hold up. Man City, Juventus, Inter Milan, Roma, Ajax, Lyon, Marseille and Valencia have all played in the Europa League in the last four years, and all are (now) Champions League stalwarts. Similarly, it is hard to argue that Nordsjaelland, APOEL, Otelul, Plzen, Zilina, Debrecen and Unirea are any better or worse than Academica, Molde, Videoton, Neftchi Baku and Maribor, all of whom are in this year’s Europa League.

Atletico Madrid celebrate their victory last year

In fact, consider for a moment how well winning the Europa League has worked out for every victor in recent years. The last four winners – Porto, Athletico Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg – have all become European powerhouses since taking home the trophy. Additionally, the players and managers that excelled in the competition have received huge career boosts: look at Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas and many of their players (Falcao, Deco, Carvalho and Hulk spring to mind).

The aforementioned winners have also become regulars in the Champions League, which is no coincidence. The co-efficient scoring that a team receives for winning the Europa League stands them in good stead for future European campaigns. This, in turn, results in better draws in the group stages, ensuring an easier route to the knockout stages (hypothetically). For instance, Athletico Madrid scored higher than Chelsea last year, 34.171 to 33.050, as did Shakhtar to Barcelona in 2009, 29.325 and 28.662 respectively. Man City could do with considering this…

Baring that in mind, why have several English clubs previously chosen to send out shadow teams in the Europa League? Why do they prioritise finishing 4thand use the competition to nurture youngsters rather than field their first team?

Two Managers who have used the Europa League to blood youngsters into the team

Typically, the answer is money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as bored of people blaming money for every footballing issue as much as the next person. But when you look at the facts you can’t help it. The winners of the Europa League receive €3 million. To put this into perspective: merely reaching the group stages of the Champions League brings in €3.9 million.

I’m sure UEFA have their reasons for such a ratio. I’m sure they can support it with advertising and sponsorship deals and what have you. But with those statistics, the Europa League is doomed to failure. Consider this: team A finishes 5th, win the Europa League and finish 5th again. They get about £28 million. Team B finishes 4th, qualify for the group stages in the Champions League but lose all their games, focus entirely on the Premier League and finish 3rd. They get £32 million. You can improve yourself more if you fail than if you succeed.

Furthermore, the Europa League will never leave the shadow of the Champions League while two facts remain: the way Champions League rejects are catapulted to the knockout stages, and the name.

By implementing 3rdplace Champions League teams into the last 32 of the Europa League, UEFA tell every participant of the Europa League that excelling in said competition is as  commendable as flopping in the Champions League. They completely demean and belittle their own competition. It’s a slap in the face to every team that worked hard to achieve qualification.

When Man Utd lost to Bilbao in the Europa League last year, I highly doubt they were as sad as they look

To make matter’s worse; it’s widely considered a slap in the face to the rejected team too! For many teams – see Man Utd last year – instigation into the Europa League is deemed a burden and a punishment. If they don’t want, then don’t give it to them. Why should they be given a second chance at glory, money and improved co-efficient when they failed the first time around?

Then we get to the name. Until the Capital One Cup reared its uninspiring head this year, the Europa League was top dog in the demotivational names league. Why change it at all? Whoever complained about the UEFA Cup? It was a pathetic attempt to make the entire competition more similar to the Champions League. As well as copy the format of the Champions League in its entirety, they tried to reproduce the esteemed power that the words ‘Champions League’ produce. But they failed. All they did was take a moon of Jupiter and add League to it. It may as well be called the League of Ganymede.

Within its name, and the way it copies the Champions League format so strictly, lies the main problem. The Europa League IS simply a second-rate Champions League. Instead of being a competition in itself, it’s a pale imitation of its more successful brother. There are enough quality teams in this year’s Europa League for it to be rated highly. The teams aren’t the issue, it’s the fact that they are currently competing for what is essentially the Champions League B.

Shakhtar Donetsk have gone from strength to strength since winning the trophy

I would like to see a new format for the second tier competition. I think with some major changes it can become as significant on the footballing landscape as it once was. A return to knockout fixtures throughout would keep the excitement levels high throughout, no Champions League rejects to belittle the initial participants (more teams in the earlier stages would solve any fixture issues), a different name and, most importantly, more money for successful teams. To be honest, the last point – reducing the financial gap between the two competitions in terms of prize money – would solve many problems all on its own. It will never happen. The Champions League has, rightly, become the jewel in UEFA’s crown and they would sooner scrap the Europa League altogether than risk degrading it. But this is a shame. Changing the system would give so many teams throughout Europe a chance to improve themselves, and restore pride back into a flagging competition.


A tale of two City’s

Man City’s awful results in the Champions League have been…well…exactly what every non-City supporting fan hoped they’d be. Despite their expensive and talented squad up there with some of the best teams in the world, they have so far only picked up 1 point in their group. Even worse, their performances have hardly even warranted that, being second-best in every one of their games. Followers of the Premier League will testify to City’s excellence after their superb domestic campaign last season, which makes their predicament in Europe all the more perplexing. What is it about the Champions League that converts City’s superstars to the pub team they resembled against Dortmund and Ajax?

If it wasn’t for Hart’s heroics, City would have 0 points from a possible 9

City will – and have – pointed to the quality of Group D. And they have a point, what with it containing the champions of 4 of the best leagues in Europe (La Liga, the Bundesliga, Eredivisie and the Premier League). Each of these teams have talent in abundance and know they’ll have to be on the top of their game to progress in this group, meaning they will give their all on each performance. But with City’s spending power equalling Real Madrid’s and far exceeding Dortmund’s and Ajax’s, that is no excuse. Their starting XI against Ajax cost them £184.7 million, and the total of all the City players including substitutes cost £251.7 million. That’s just under £17.98 million per player. Only Real Madrid – ironically the team City came closest to beating – can compete with those figures, their XI+subs against Dortmund costing approximately £277.4 million (£21.3 million each)*. Furthermore, whilst it has been well documented that money does not guarantee instant results, City have undeniably had (domestic) success, with a return of two major trophies since Sheikh Mansour’s takeover. His investment has returned the goods and amassed a squad of brilliant footballers. This success in England puts even more question marks over their continued failure in Europe. Last year they could (just about) put it down to naivety. This year, despite the group draw, they did not have that excuse.

One theory being bandied about is that the English league is falling behind its European counterparts in terms of quality, enabling City to dominate one and falter in the other. I don’t buy this. The Premier League has ruled in the Champions League in recent years, reaching the final at least in every year since 04-05 except for 09-10, and one week of poor results does not change that despite what certain media outlets might say. Furthermore, whilst they faltered this week, 6 of the 7 English clubs in European football are in a good position to qualify from their group. To me, it seems over-zealous hyperbole to state that the English game is a spent force a mere 3 group games into the season following an English team winning Europe’s top competition. No, the quality of English football is not the reason for City’s struggles.

Another theory, and one with a lot more credibility to it, is that the problem is Roberto Mancini. His personal managerial record speaks of a glittering, trophy-laden career on the domestic front but continual disappointments in Europe, albeit usually via the knockout stage. To Mancini’s credit, there have been few excuses. He has been honest in his interviews and admitted that City’s failings are their own doing, whether that was defending too deep against Madrid, not running enough against Dortmund, or personally making poor choices against Ajax. He has not blamed any refereeing decisions and refused to accept Champions League inexperience as an excuse. Thank God he hasn’t, because their team is full of players that have played in the Champions League.  Tevez, Balotelli, Aguero, Dzeko, Nasri, Maicon, Kompany, Clichy, Javi Garcia and the Toure brothers had all played in the Champions League before joining City. No, I believe City’s shortcomings is best be shown through Micah Richards’ outburst against Mancini after the Ajax game. Richards blamed the back three formation Mancini employed, revealing the two reasons City are struggling – poor player attitude, and Mancini’s mistakes.

Richards questioned Mancini’s decision to switch to 3 centre backs

Mancini must take some blame for their losses, as he has and as any manager should. But he can’t be completely blamed – the players themselves are the ones on the pitch playing the game and they have to hold themselves accountable, which I don’t think they are. Mancini has actually done a pretty decent job of handling the egos in his team so far. Yes, he’s made mistakes, but dealing with Tevez’s revolt last year and Balotelli’s constant behavioural irregularities can’t have been easy. However, Richards is now the second player to have spoken out against the team this year, after Joe Hart claimed the team “can only blame [themselves]” for losing to Real Madrid. Hart and Richards have never come across as petulant prima donnas, so their comments must be taken seriously. Whilst they came in post match interviews in heightened emotional conditions and footballers have never been the canniest of public speakers (oh, the perils of Twitter), their comments hint at an attitude towards the game that may be their undoing. It implies that they believe the hype around them. I doubt they pay too much attention to the media, but the amount of praise and admiration that is dolled out to City’s players must have leaked to them somehow, and that may have led to a few of their players resting on their laurels and believing that they can win games just by turning up. Some of their performances in the League this year have been unconvincing even in victory, such as their most recent game against Swansea, and interestingly their better players this year have been those pillioried last year, those with a point to prove such as Tevez, Dzeko and Kolarov. Mancini must control this over-confidence if he is to succeed in general, let alone in Europe. Thus far they have scraped their way through most of their games by just about doing enough, winning the majority of them by one goal. It is a far cry from the swaggering, goal-scoring form they started last season with. They certainly have the quality, but need to be reminded that they still need to work hard to succeed. Perhaps their current Champions League predicament will kick them into action?

Even if it does, there are still concerns surrounding Mancini. After the Ajax game he displayed genuinely concerning levels of naivety and managerial ineptitude. He openly admitted that he “prepared badly for this game” and he even suggested that tactics weren’t important:

“We changed for five minutes to three at the back, but we always have 11 players. I don’t think that is important – three, four, five, six or seven defenders. If someone wants that as an excuse then OK, but it’s not the reason. If you have the spirit or quality to play in the Champions League, you can play. If not, you can’t. This is the problem. The tactics are not important.”

Is he seriously saying that tactics aren’t important in the Champions League? Try telling that to Roberto Di Matteo, whose tactics for Chelsea won the competition with arguably the weakest Chelsea squad since Abramovich took over. It comes across as a Mancini tantrum after having his decisions questioned by one of his players. In my opinion, he felt undermined by Richards and responded with a statement that he (surely) doesn’t actually believe. Nevertheless, if he really didn’t prepare for a crucial, must-win European game then yes, he does only have himself to blame. How many more times can he do that before Sheikh Mansour refuses to allow it? It would be rash and foolish to sack Mancini even if they did crash out of the the Champions League at the group stage, yet the suggestion is not entirely fanciful. It’s within Mancini’s abilities to reel back his squad, do his homework and bring his team back down to earth, just as it’s within the squad’s capabilities to salvage their European campaign. But the players need to give more to the cause before that can happen, and that giving needs to happen from the first minute of their next Champions League game.

*All figures are approximates taken from http://www.transfermarkt.co.uk/