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.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:30 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 10:33 PM EDT
Chicago ended their season with a win as Florent Sinama-Pongolle tallied in stoppage time to erase Houston’s first half lead.
Oct 24, 2014, 9:22 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 8:51 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 8:00 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 7:27 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 6:20 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 5:31 PM EDT
UEFA handed Serbia a 3-0 win but deducted points after their match against Albania was called off due to violence.
Oct 24, 2014, 4:43 PM EDT
The former England captain and Manchester United legend plans to retire after his season at QPR.
Oct 24, 2014, 3:54 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 3:04 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 2:26 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 2:01 PM EDT
It’s going to be ugly and we’re going to shake our heads. Some will feign shock. And the whole cycle will repeat itself again at Barcelona.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:20 PM EDT
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Oct 24, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Perhaps a respite for Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, as their clubs face lesser competition this week in Burnley and QPR, respectively.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:25 PM EDT
Where and how to watch every game during Week 9 of the PL.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:05 PM EDT
It’s a top-four battle — no, seriously — as Manchester City rolls into Upton Park to take on Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT
Who makes the cut as MLS players deserving of a look at USMNT camp?
Oct 24, 2014, 10:25 AM EDT
An all-MLS final appearance is impossible thanks to seeding, and Montreal and DC can only face-off if they win in the quarterfinals this winter.
Oct 24, 2014, 9:38 AM EDT
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