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.

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Di Matteo Sacking Ludicrous but Indicative

Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal is one of the least deserved in recent footballing history. I’m sure people could give me plenty of previous unfair examples, but surely they could not argue that he deserved to go. He’s had just 5 competitive losses this year, and 21 competitive games ago he won the Champions League for Chelsea, defeating Barcelona, Napoli and Bayern Munich along the way. It was the trophy Abramovich had pined for throughout his reign. The justification for Ancelotti being sacked after winning the double was his poor Champions League form. Di Matteo succeeded where other Managers had failed; his reward was his P45 as soon as results slightly dipped.

To sack Di Matteo on league form is preposterous – Chelsea started the season with a swagger and success not seen before, even under Mourinho. They’ve lost 2 league games this year, against an in-form West Brom and in controversial circumstances to Manchester United. Blips against QPR, Liverpool and Swansea may not be ideal but are no reason to sack someone. They were in top position as recently as 4 games ago and are a mere 4 points off it even now.

Abramovich might use Chelsea’s Champions League form as an excuse, and admittedly they have been mediocre in Europe’s most high-profile competition. However, they’ve been considerably better than Roberto Mancini’s Man City (a man with a worse time-to-success ratio than Di Matteo and with none of the ‘Club Legend’ status), and Di Matteo’s record in the Champions League is better than any of his predecessors.

Moreover, how does Abramovich think another Manager would help them out in this position? It’s out of their hands – the best Di Matteo can do in that position is the best any other Manager in the world can do. I’m sure Di Matteo is as capable of engineering a win against Nordsjaelland as anyone else is (let’s face it, they’re Group E’s whipping boys), so how can sacking the Manager – at this stage – help anyone?

Unimpressed Roman – Spent £80 million on players for a Manager he clearly never wanted

It’s quite clear that Abramovich never wanted Di Matteo. Chelsea’s reasoning for sacking him does not hold up:

 “The team’s recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season.”

So ‘recent’ means ‘the last four games’ does it? If that is the case, then every Football Manager may as well pack his bags. The fact of the matter is that RDM doesn’t fit into Abramovich’s idealistic vision of a superstar Chelsea run by a superstar Manager with superstar players. His previous job was West Bromwich Albion, where he was sacked (again, rather unfairly), whereas the jobs of other Managers in Roman’s reign include Porto, AC Milan and the Portuguese national team.

Even after Di Matteo improved Chelsea’s league form, won them two trophies and revitalised the likes of Drogba, Lampard and Torres – all of whom floundered under AVB – Abramovich was still obviously reluctant to hire him full time as a Manager. He clearly hated that Di Matteo’s success took the matter out of his own hands. Why did Abramovich wait nearly a month after winning the Double to hire Di Matteo full time? That kind of success is rare, yet Abramovich was still reluctant to acknowledge it.

The game that cost Di Matteo his job

So what did Abramovich do? He decided to wait. Wait until the first blip, until Di Matteo messed up. He almost had it in Chelsea not winning in the Premier League in 4 games (God, it still sounds ridiculous that that’s been punished with dismissal); the groundwork was laid. All he needed was a catalyst, an example where Di Matteo was unavoidably responsible so some of the Chelsea fans will have doubts about their beloved Manager.

He got that in their 3-0 loss away to Juventus. The loss by itself may still have been enough, but it was Di Matteo’s gamble of playing without a Centre Forward, a la Spain (ironically, with the same striker sacrificed in each system), that gave him the evidence. It didn’t work, Chelsea lost limply, Di Matteo shouldered all the blame in a press conference, and he was gone.

Abramovich treating Managers like disposable razors is nothing out of the ordinary, even if Di Matteo’s is the harshest of the lot. If Benitez, Redknapp, Guardiola or Mourinho come in to replace him they should only expect the same level of “loyalty”. However, the bigger picture here is worrying for all Managers, as it’s the most recent in a series of undeserved and impulsive sackings. Solely in the English Premier League for the last two years we have:

Chris Hughton (Newcastle) – brought the Magpies back to the top flight after relegation, brought in current team regulars Perch, Williamson, Simpson and Tiote. Sacked December 6th 2010 with Newcastle 12th in the League.

Sam Allardyce (Blackburn) – safely midtable for two years at Blackburn and built up a formidable home record. Sacked with Blackburn 13th in mid-December 2010.

Carlo Ancelotti (Chelsea) – won the League and FA Cup double in 2009-10, their first ever domestic double. Sacked in the summer of 2011 despite finishing 2nd in the League, a triumph for most teams.

Neil Warnock (QPR) – transformed them from relegation-fears to Championship winners in just over a year, bringing much-needed stability to a club which had previously been a Managerial merry-go-round, revolutionised Adel Taarabt and returned them to the Premier League after 15 years. Was rewarded with the sack after a dip in form. Sacked on 8th January 2012 with QPR 17th.

Mick McCarthy (Wolves) – had been Wolves Manager for 6 years when sacked. Slowly built them from Championship also-rans to the Premier League with many home-grown players and was promoted in 1st place in 2009. Brought them their best league finish (15th) since 1980 in the following season and avoided relegation again in their second consecutive top-flight campaign. Despite winning the relegation game twice, he was sacked with Wolves in 18th place on 13th February 2012.

Harry Redknapp (Tottenham) – in his four years at Spurs, he: (1) saved Tottenham from relegation to a mid-table finish in his first season (2) brought about their best-ever season in the next campaign (70 points, 4th place and Champions League), winning the Manager of the Year in the process (3) took Spurs to the Champions League quarter finals (4) created the best Tottenham team since the inauguration of the Premier League, finished 4th again despite being in the top 3 for much of the season and only lost out on Champions League due to Chelsea winning it. Was inexplicably sacked in the summer of 2012.

It seems to be a trend that success isn’t enough in this current climate. Matching the expectations of the fans and the club does not guarantee your job – you need to surpass it. What kind of a message does that send out to Managers? Who on earth would want to become a Manager in that environment? We run the risk of alienating future Managers by abiding by this philosophy.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that all of the above, bar Hughton, would have done better for their clubs than those they were replaced with did (although time will tell with Villas-Boas at Tottenham). If the mantra that success is not rewarded with loyalty, patience and trust is upheld, I anticipate a scenario where the only Managers in the game are previous players. Who would want go through the coaching badges and slowly climb the ladder to management if they’re devoting their entire life to a goal (of being a Manager) that can be taken away even if they’ve been successful? I hope I’m wrong, but personally, I wouldn’t want to work in a career where I’m forever worrying about being fired.