May 15, 2013, 6:04 PM EST
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.
Nov 28, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
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Nov 28, 2014, 11:52 AM EST
Hull City is looking for a historic win when they visit surging Manchester United on Saturday.
Nov 28, 2014, 11:01 AM EST
We pick three clubs in three countries that could be a landing spot for the out-of-favor Sunderland striker in the January transfer window.
Nov 28, 2014, 10:10 AM EST
The Baggies are coming off losses to Chelsea and Newcastle, and are four points back of eighth place Arsenal. The NBCSN match kicks at 745am ET.
Nov 28, 2014, 9:37 AM EST
Spain (4) and Germany (3) are the only nations with multiple members.
Nov 28, 2014, 8:35 AM EST
Manchester United’s legendary midfielder will stay in his assistant coach role for Ireland, spend more time with his family.
Nov 28, 2014, 7:58 AM EST
Vice Sports writer Kevin Koczwara has the story of Alston’s fight with chronic myelogenous leukemia.
New England Revolution, 90 minutes from MLS Cup, must simply avoid second-leg disaster vs. Red Bulls
Nov 27, 2014, 11:15 PM EST
It’s been a long time since the New England Revolution lost by mulitple goals, which the New York Red Bulls must achieve to reach MLS Cup 2014.
Nov 27, 2014, 9:26 PM EST
The big Europa League sides have begun to advance to the knockout round, with a few more very close to joining them.
Nov 27, 2014, 4:09 PM EST
Toffees seal spot in Europa League knockout rounds after terrific away day display.
Nov 27, 2014, 3:17 PM EST
Three FIFA ExCo members and German legend latest to be under the spotlight.
Nov 27, 2014, 2:05 PM EST
Brazilian legend hospitalized for second time this month.
Nov 27, 2014, 1:15 PM EST
Whelan charged by FA over accusations of anti-Semitic, racist remarks.
Nov 27, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
Spanish giants drop Christian symbol as they link up with Abu Dhabi based bank.
Nov 27, 2014, 10:55 AM EST
Can Spurs and Everton make a top four charge? Will Saints stun Man City?
Nov 27, 2014, 10:00 AM EST
Watch the incident unfold, as Brazilian striker is behind bars.
Nov 27, 2014, 9:13 AM EST
Wilshere has surgery on left ankle, as young midfielder set for another lengthy spell on the sidelines.
Nov 27, 2014, 8:51 AM EST
Bradley opens up about his first season at Stabaek, his future in Europe and much more.
Nov 27, 2014, 7:28 AM EST
Klinsmann’s men drop further in FIFA’s latest rankings.
Nov 26, 2014, 11:15 PM EST
Is the FA getting too involved in non-events?
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