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.
Aug 22, 2014, 9:51 PM EDT
The league’s second round kicks off at Villa Park and ends with the main event on Merseyside.
Aug 22, 2014, 9:12 PM EDT
List of things Cristiano Ronaldo can’t do: Throw a proper punch.
Aug 22, 2014, 8:20 PM EDT
Dallas is undefeated since May, while RSL has a chance to temporarily move clear atop the Western Conference.
Aug 22, 2014, 7:17 PM EDT
Dallas versus Real Salt Lake, Sporting hosting D.C. see the conferences’ best go head-to-head.
Aug 22, 2014, 6:50 PM EDT
Early Mandzukic goal gives Atlético its fifth trophy under Simeone.
Aug 22, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
Toffees and Gunners clash, Liverpool head to Man City, London derby time and much more.
Aug 22, 2014, 4:59 PM EDT
Goal, assist from Dutch star helped deliver Bayern three points to open the Bundesliga season.
Aug 22, 2014, 4:03 PM EDT
Can Villa continue their good start to the season? Watch live, Saturday 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN.
Aug 22, 2014, 3:17 PM EDT
Birmingham City, 1860 Munich, Millwall, Nurnberg… it seems Brek Shea is a man in demand when it comes to his loan from Stoke City.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:48 PM EDT
The Bavarians added Robert Lewandowski, and look poised to lead again. Who are the favorites to emerge in the race for second?
Aug 22, 2014, 2:29 PM EDT
Matchweek 2 brings a few killer games including Everton v. Arsenal on Saturday and Manchester City v. Liverpool on Monday.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT
From the early days in Italy, to the craziness of Man City and then back to AC Milan, here’s the timeline of Balotelli’s life so far.
Aug 22, 2014, 2:03 PM EDT
The 19-year-old American attacker’s only senior appearance for Bayern was a Champions League sub. That could change today.
Aug 22, 2014, 1:31 PM EDT
Probably not, but with Sevilla and Barcelona strengthening while Atletico deals with roster tumult, look for some changes near the top.
Aug 22, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT
PSV Eindhoven called the police, upping the ante on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
Aug 22, 2014, 12:33 PM EDT
Where and how to watch every single PL game in Week 2, right here.
Aug 22, 2014, 11:57 AM EDT
A young Brazilian is the newest name linked with Louis van Gaal, while Manchester City could be selling a top young defender
Aug 22, 2014, 10:59 AM EDT
Jones wants to head to Chicago, and wants more money if he goes to New England.
Aug 22, 2014, 10:08 AM EDT
Nantes is off to another strong start, and Ale Bedoya’s club now stares down a match-up with Monaco.
Aug 22, 2014, 9:20 AM EDT
Labeling vile statements in text messages “friendly banter” has Cardiff in a frenzy, and looking for fresh consequences.
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