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.
Dec 20, 2014, 8:11 AM EST
Sterling, 20, follows the likes of Rooney, Messi and Aguero after being named the best youngster in European soccer.
Dec 20, 2014, 7:20 AM EST
Can the Citizens make it six wins on the spin without a striker? Watch live, here.
Dec 20, 2014, 7:10 AM EST
How and where to watch every single PL game from Week 17 live online or via the app.
Dec 19, 2014, 11:20 PM EST
Harry Redknapp believes he could be Ravel Morrison’s “last chance” to prove he is ready to play top-flight football.
Dec 19, 2014, 10:25 PM EST
Since returning from injury, the England international has been key to United’s six-game win streak.
Dec 19, 2014, 9:40 PM EST
Rog and Davo are joined by Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael, who discusses her short stint selling hot dogs at St. Mary’s and the rivalry between Southampton and Portsmouth.
Dec 19, 2014, 8:50 PM EST
With 45 points through 17 matches, Bayern Munich is having the best season in Bundesliga history.
Dec 19, 2014, 8:00 PM EST
The opening weekend of MLS play features Orlando City SC and New York City FC facing off in a battle of expansion teams.
Dec 19, 2014, 7:10 PM EST
Newcastle and Sunderland may be bitter rivals, but their managers are telling supporters to behave on Sunday.
Dec 19, 2014, 6:20 PM EST
The Blues’ boss said his Belgian playmaker can become a Chelsea legend, but must win titles first.
Dec 19, 2014, 5:30 PM EST
England’s number one keeper finally put pen to paper with a new deal that will keep him at the Etihad until 2019.
Dec 19, 2014, 4:40 PM EST
The Leicester City boss was also fined $15,000 by the FA following his altercation with a fan.
Dec 19, 2014, 3:55 PM EST
CR7 and Howard, it seems, are among the few blessed with tons of talent and even more desire to work.
Dec 19, 2014, 3:20 PM EST
In the Premier League, Brad Guzan is tasked with keeping Manchester United off the scoreboard.
Dec 19, 2014, 2:05 PM EST
Orlando City founder and president Phil Rawlins described Shea as a big addition to the squad.
Dec 19, 2014, 1:43 PM EST
Altidore’s production for his country and in the Eredivisie prove he’s a much better player than his horrible spell at Sunderland.
Dec 19, 2014, 12:52 PM EST
According to The Daily Express, Man Utd’s man if Mats Hummels won’t come over from Borussia Dortmund is Nicolas Otamendi of Valencia.
Dec 19, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
Where and how to watch all the PL games during Week 17.
Dec 19, 2014, 11:38 AM EST
“He had to make a step back in his recovery,” said Southampton boss Ronald Koeman.
Dec 19, 2014, 10:50 AM EST
Villa Park hasn’t been a fortress for the Villans, and that’s underlined when bigger teams visit.
- Raheem Sterling named best young player in Europe, wins ‘Golden Boy’ award 0
- Watch Live: Manchester City vs. Crystal Palace (Lineups and Live Stream) 0
- WATCH: Premier League online via NBC Sports Live Extra – Week 17 0
- MLS announces home openers for 2015 season 2
- Mourinho says Eden Hazard can become an all-time great 2
- After failed odyssey abroad, Brek Shea returns to MLS with Orlando City 3