x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Battle to get teams to take the Europa League seriously

Teams see the competition as a step down from the Champions League.

Tottenham Hotspur's Jermain Defoe, centre, and Gareth Bale, right, argue with the referee during their loss to PAOK Salonika. That result means the English side are facing elimination from the Europa League.
Tottenham Hotspur's Jermain Defoe, centre, and Gareth Bale, right, argue with the referee during their loss to PAOK Salonika. That result means the English side are facing elimination from the Europa League.

If some of the derision being heaped on the Europa League in recent weeks were delivered in a school playground, the abusers would be serving long hours of detention by now.

The loudest bullies come from England, where the reaction of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, to the fact his club will be in Friday's draw for Uefa's secondary competition rather than for the last 16 of the Champions League, has been barely concealed scorn.

Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, struggles to disguise the indifference he feels ahead of tomorrow's trip to Shamrock Rovers. And Spurs are teetering on the edge of elimination in Europa League.

Redknapp, like Ferguson, says he resents the "Thursday and Sunday" schedule that involvement in the Europa League - where most fixtures are on Thursday nights, meaning subsequent league matches are on Sundays or Mondays - imposes.

What he misses is the Champions League, where Spurs reached a quarter-final last March, for its glamour.

Ever since the Champions League expanded at the end of the 1990s to include more than one team each from the major leagues of Europe, other international club competitions have suffered by comparison.

The European Cup-Winners Cup was abandoned a dozen years ago, its diverting history consigned to the sport's archives. The Uefa Cup - which changed its name to the Europa League in 2009 - became strictly and literally Europe's second division with the rule demoting the third-placed finishers from Champions League groups into its ranks.

Nobody usually uses the word "relegation" for what happened to Ferguson's United when they lost their final, decisive 2011 Champions League fixture against Basel last Wednesday. But relegation is what it was.

There is some consolation, at least, in the company United are keeping in their reduced status.

The champions of England will be joined in Friday's Europa League knockout-phase draw by the champions of Portugal - a Porto team who won the last Europa League - of Holland (Ajax), and of Greece (Olympiakos).

There is a curiosity here. Of the top 10 domestic leagues in the Uefa rankings, there are now more defending champions in the knockout stage of the Europa League than there are in the last 16 of the Champions League, where Barcelona (Spain), AC Milan (Italy) and CSKA Moscow (Russia) are the only league title-holders from the top 10 seeded nations left.

Other champions from sturdy leagues have fallen even further than United and Porto. Lille, the Ligue 1 winners in France last May, and Borussia Dortmund, the Bundesliga shield holders, finished bottom of their respective Champions League groups.

Michel Platini, the Uefa president in whose tenure the Europa League got its current name and who has pursued various strategies to make the Champions League less elitist, says "the Europa League is a brilliant competition".

It certainly has an extra sheen for the presence not only of United, but of Manchester City, relegated from the Champions League but currently leading the English Premier League.

Paris Saint-Germain, newly wealthy and ambitious, would hope to confirm their progress to the knockout stages when they meet Athletic Bilbao, who are already through, tonight.

Athletic themselves will be part of a strong Spanish contingent in the next phase, along with Valencia and Atletico Madrid.

A sceptic would be well advised to ask a club like Atletico what they think of the Europa League. Nobody witnessing the celebrations when they won the tournament in 2010 could have mistaken the prize as anything but a cherished trophy.

But while a final between, say, United and PSG, or City and Valencia or Porto versus Atletico would excite and resonate, the competition will remain scorned in the playground of the super-clubs, or aspiring heavyweights, until Uefa make further changes to how it is staged.

They are unlikely to abandon the principle of December relegations from the Champions League, but they could energise the Europa League even further were they to offer the winners a berth in the next edition of the Champions League.

Sometimes, these winners would have qualified anyway, by their domestic league positions, but if a club like Spurs glimpsed that carrot, a man like Redknapp would be more enthusiastic.