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.
Jul 29, 2014, 11:20 PM EDT
“I can only say that I’m very happy at City and at the moment we are talking about a contract,” Dzeko said.
Jul 29, 2014, 10:36 PM EDT
The 3,600 meters of elevation will provide a stiff challenge, with many opposing clubs having fallen victim to the altitude.
Jul 29, 2014, 9:43 PM EDT
Manchester United continued their success in the US with a third consecutive victory.
Jul 29, 2014, 9:01 PM EDT
Sturridge and Ibe step to the mic and hold their own.
Jul 29, 2014, 8:24 PM EDT
In team news, van Gaal has decided to go with his fabled 3-5-2.
Jul 29, 2014, 8:03 PM EDT
In a startling revelation, AS has revealed that Radamel Falcao has begun following three Real Madrid players on Instagram.
Jul 29, 2014, 7:08 PM EDT
Big day for headlines coming out of Southampton but this one looks to be quite promising for Saints fans.
Jul 29, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
Twenty-seven years after his first stint with Gremio, Luis Felipe Scolari is returning to the Brazilian side as its new manager.
Jul 29, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Krkic, who made the $6.7 million move from Barcelona last week, scored a cracker of a first goal for Stoke City.
Jul 29, 2014, 5:25 PM EDT
Tevez’s family was then phoned and told to deliver a ransom of $5,000 (40,000 pesos).
Jul 29, 2014, 4:53 PM EDT
“Every penny of that will be up for reinvestment as transfer fees and wages,” Krueger said.
Jul 29, 2014, 4:03 PM EDT
Where, exactly, Ronaldinho’s future ends up is anyone’s guess.
Jul 29, 2014, 3:22 PM EDT
ICC and MLS action is in full swing in the USA this week. Watch it all online, here.
Jul 29, 2014, 2:57 PM EDT
Jacobson arrives in the Big Apple from Dallas. Will Aquilani join him?
Jul 29, 2014, 2:20 PM EDT
Now Schneiderlin wants out as Saints’ incredible exodus continues to take a turn for the worst.
Jul 29, 2014, 1:58 PM EDT
Despite not winning any silverware last season, Barcelona were big winners off the pitch.
Jul 29, 2014, 1:21 PM EDT
Tevez’s father, Juan Carlos Cabral, is said to have been kidnapped in Buenos Aires and held for ransom.
Jul 29, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT
Southampton duo are going nowhere, despite being linked with Tottenham switch.
Jul 29, 2014, 12:37 PM EDT
Liverpool sign talented Belgian teenager, will loan him back to Lille this season.
Jul 29, 2014, 12:11 PM EDT
Even after calling African players “banana eaters” this man is set lead the Italian FA.
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