For the last few seasons I’ve really enjoyed watching some Europa League football on a Thursday night. For one, its quite a relaxed night in the Knowles household.; it’s nearly the end of the working week when the family can relax with some second-tier, European action. Secondly, the team I support, Liverpool, have featured in it quite a bit. The 2012/13 season was the first time that many Liverpool fans would have seen Luis Suarez put in performances to stir up excitement for what was to come in his Anfield career. A last-16 two legged defeat to Zenit St. Petersburg was actually quite a harsh result for the way Liverpool, and in particular Suarez, played at Anfield in a 3-1 win. Suarez scored two on the night with his second being a superb free kick. Liverpool also went on a terrific run last season all the way to the final, only to be out classed by Sevilla. Along the way there was a terrific game at Anfield against Borussia Dortmund; a seven goal thriller that ended with a Dejan Lovren last minute winner, in what was possibly one of the best Liverpool games since Kevin Keegan brought his high flying Newcastle side to Anfield in April 1996.
The third reason I warmed to the Europa League was Everton’s performances in the competition in the 2014/15 season. In ten games, they failed to score in only two of the games, six of the games had three goals or more, and three of the games had five goals. They were incredibly entertaining to watch, and in every game, they tried to win and progress to the next round. Chelsea also took the competition seriously under Rafa Benitez in 2012/13 when they beat Benfica 2-1 in Amsterdam in the final. It was perhaps down to the fact that the club had placed Rafa Benitez in charge of the team until the end of season and this was realistically the only trophy they could win.
In the last few seasons, the Europa League winners have been given a qualification spot in the following season’s Champions League, which might explain certain club’s interest in the tournament. It baffled me, though, that it took so long for English clubs to realise this; Tottenham Hotspur’s run in the competition last year was a particular disappointment. Spurs went to Dortmund in the round of 16 and essentially threw the tie, fielding a weakened side in preparation for a tricky Sunday tie with the bottom team in the Premier League at the time, Aston Villa. Pochettino rested Erik Lamela, Moussa Dembele and Harry Kane; a player who got his first few starts for Spurs in the competition in 2011, and who also had a terrific goal-scoring record in the competition in 2014/15. It was a sign of their lack of respect for the Europa League that they prioritised a nothing game against a terrible Villa team instead of having a go at Dortmund. They got beaten 3-0 in Germany and they were lucky it wasn’t more.
This season ,Manchester United and Southampton have reached the group stages after West Ham’s pathetic attempt to get past Astra Giorgiu in the qualifying round. For West Ham, it’s a particular arrogance to think they are above the Europa League. The Champions League is obviously the Holy Grail of European competition, but if you qualify for the Europa League, why not put in a genuine effort to compete? Manchester United have also been known to take a casual approach to it –they went out last season with a lacklustre performance against Liverpool. This season under Jose Mourinho has started in similar fashion. The Special One rested eight players from his starting eleven that featured in the Manchester City game and it showed. A very average Feyenoord, who had former Liverpool players Dirk Kuyt and goalkeeper Brad Jones in their ranks, dispatched of the Old Trafford giants. Jose Mourinho himself has often shown his lack of respect for the competition in the past; when he rejoined Chelsea the season after their Europa League win, he dismissed the addition to the trophy cabinet and the competition as a whole. “The Europa League is a different competition (to the Champions League), the Europa League is a different level of competition for a different level of player and a different level of club. It is not good for a big club to go there and win it,” stated the man who was fired from his position only a few years later after everything began to crumble around him. I’m sure he’d have been glad of a Europa League, then.
Maybe it’s time that English clubs took the competition seriously instead of arrogantly dismissing the Cup. I’ve always felt that it is the clubs’ duty to try and go as far as they can in whatever competition they are in — in Europe, especially so. It doesn’t reflect well on the Europa League if teams can’t even be bothered trying to qualify for it. Try telling a fan of Dundalk that it doesn’t matter after their heroic point against Alkmaar. How about letting the Hapoel Be’er Sheva faithful know it means nothing, after they’ve beaten Inter Milan in Milan; I imagine those fans will be talking about that game for the next 50 years. Memories are created by big nights of European competition and perhaps it’s time for English clubs to snap out of this mentality that the Premier League is the only thing that matters. It’s time to start creating memories for fans that can last a lifetime.