May 15, 2013, 6:04 PM EDT
Many of Europa League’s problems were laid bare on Wednesday, and while moments after the tournament’s high point seem an ill-opportune time to address those concerns, there aren’t many other points on the calendar when we’re willing to consider Europa. For many teams in the competition – small clubs in top-heavy leagues that have little chance of ever making Champions League — it’s a great tournament, one that gives them opportunities, opponents, and exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have. And UEFA tosses in some money, too. For other teams, however, the tournament is a conciliatory obligation, one in which they’re used as a pawn to enhance the competition’s spurious legitimacy.
Thus was have today’s final. Chelsea was only in it because they flamed out of Champions League. Same with Benfica, who didn’t have Chelsea’s excuse of having played in a difficult group. They failed to beat out Celtic for the knockout round spot from their Champions League group. Why would anybody create a competition where two of fall’s underachievers are competing for honors in the spring?
If you’re reading this site, that’s probably not news to you, but as you see the likes of John Terry and Rafa Benítez celebrate today’s win, keep their accomplishment in perspective. Today was a battle between two teams for whom Europa League will never be a preseason goal. This, as the abused yet accurate metaphor explains, is to European soccer what the National Invitational Tournament is to NCAA basketball. Since everybody – from the fans, to the coaches, to the players – knows it’s “the other tournament,” the stakes are never going to justify the pomp.
That attitude was apparent through most of today’s match. Yes, it was very entertaining at the end – 10 minutes of back-and-forth action that almost talked you into an extra 30 – but for most of the day, the match was drab. Benfica’s midfield controlled much of it. Chelsea didn’t care. A goal off a long ball; a penalty kick – it wasn’t exactly captivating stuff. Though the tactical battle in the midfield added a somewhat cerebral (or, philosophical) element to the game, that intrigue was undermined by a lack of intensity. Call it cagey, if you want, but it was still a problem, one that was only corrected in the final moments.
All of which goes back to the competition’s main problems. Not enough teams that care about it, especially those which are relegated to it from Champions League. And when those teams enter the competition in the Round of 32, they are often superior to those competing in group stage, creating a continuity issue that begs potential viewers to discard the tournament’s initial rounds and only invest once the apathy.
Those favorites aren’t apathetic forever. Eventually, they convince themselves there’s something in winning a trophy. They delude themselves into believing an honor they didn’t care about six months earlier is worth the champagne and theatrics. I still don’t understand the psychosis behind this.
If Chelsea and Benfica weren’t today’s finalists, we might have seen a more spirited game – a contest between two sides that didn’t have to come to terms with their newly deflated status. If Europa League were left to those teams who could really use the competition – those who aren’t in Champions League and aren’t likely to get their any time soon – we could see sides that treat this match like an honor.
So give this tournament to the teams that want it. No more Champions League back doors, and no more looking toward the occasional big name entrant as a way to raise the competition’s profile. It’s more important to have compelling matches in a tournament with competitive integrity. While that means we might not have a club of Chelsea’s profile in the final, we may, in the long run, end up with a competition capable of earning a profile of its own.
Sep 16, 2014, 1:29 PM EDT
Manchester United, Aston Villa leap up the list after impressive wins on the weekend.
Sep 16, 2014, 12:56 PM EDT
The jacked-up keeper was released by Hoffenheim last season as his body became too muscular to stand between the sticks (at least according to the club).
Sep 16, 2014, 12:17 PM EDT
In a very odd twist, he’s going to stay on as assistant manager to Alex Pastoor, a former assistant.
Sep 16, 2014, 11:20 AM EDT
Know the name Hector Bellerin? Odds are you will after today’s match-up between Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.
Sep 16, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
With all the post-match fish-and-chips testing done around the Premier League, they couldn’t just, you know, eat fish and chips and get away with it.
Sep 16, 2014, 9:36 AM EDT
Who picked Manchester City to win its tough group, and who said they’d fail to survive their opposition?
Sep 16, 2014, 8:48 AM EDT
How was this caper achieved? Was a security guard in on the act? Was an identical water bottle substituted?
Sep 16, 2014, 7:22 AM EDT
Villa will take on Arsenal without Christian Benteke this weekend, but the forward could be back by the end of the month.
Sep 15, 2014, 11:48 PM EDT
It was a week so fertile for goals that one of the world’s biggest names couldn’t dent the strike force of the PL team of the week.
Sep 15, 2014, 11:01 PM EDT
No one’s doing it quite like this man right now, who again takes hold of player of the week honors in the Premier League.
Sep 15, 2014, 10:37 PM EDT
There are five goals here, but it only took four matches to comprise the list.
Sep 15, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
Costa Rica won the tournament for the eighth time, defeating Guatemala in the final.
Sep 15, 2014, 8:34 PM EDT
Newcastle United players and their manager have come under fire from ex-Liverpool back Jamie Carragher, who blasted the club on “Monday Night Football”
Sep 15, 2014, 7:45 PM EDT
The Sounders have three titles and won their first win Le Toux. Soccerly hosts an essay on his quest to deny them a fourth.
Sep 15, 2014, 6:55 PM EDT
The English FA asked FIFA to extend Anelka’s quenelle suspension beyond Britain’s borders.
Sep 15, 2014, 5:54 PM EDT
Oktoberfest begins Sept. 20, and 1860 Munich is going all-in when it comes to their away attire.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:53 PM EDT
Abel Hernandez, Enner Valencia, Mohamed Diame and Diafra Sakho all made their presences felt on NBCSN at the KC Stadium on Monday.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:34 PM EDT
Certainly one of the goals of the early season, as West Ham continues to tempt the highlight reels despite a tough start to the season.
Sep 15, 2014, 4:15 PM EDT
Brek Shea had a loan debut to remember, while Julian Green had one to forget and both Tim Howard and Brad Guzan kept clean sheets.
Sep 15, 2014, 3:49 PM EDT
Abel Hernandez has a goal and had another creation ruled offsides as the hosts rose to steal the first half with late heroics.
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