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La Liga’s dominance in the Europa League a lesson for the Manchester clubs and Tottenham this season

La Liga’s dominance of Europe’s second most prestigious tournament should serve as a timely reminder of what the Premier League is missing out on.

This week sees the return of the Champions League, with much of the attention focusing on Chelsea’s clash with Barcelona, while Bayern Munich face off against Real Madrid.

Yet for all the glitz and glamour of the tournament, just 24 hours later, another set of European fixtures could make for interesting viewing.

On Thursday evening, Atletico Madrid and Valencia will play in the semi-final of the Europa League while Athletic Bilbao head to Portugal to face Sporting Lisbon.

The line-up stands as a testament to the depth in quality that exists in Spain with Atletico and Bilbao reaching this stage of the competition after navigating a tricky group and knock-out phase.

This was undoubtedly evidenced during Bilbao’s demolition of Manchester United. Entering the competition after being dumped out of the Champions League, United were fortunate to escape with a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the first leg, but even then manager Alex Ferguson sensed the tide of the tie was against them.

Speaking to the BBC then, the Scot admitted that, “They were the better team,” with the second leg to come looking “uphill fight.”

The comments spoke volumes for the quality of Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao team, given number of times Ferguson has come out fighting when the Reds have faced seemingly insurmountable odds. They were quickly confirmed too with a 2-1 defeat in the return fixture.

Yet in truth, Spain’s continued love affair with the Europa League should come as little surprise to those who have followed the competition over the years.

From Sevilla’s back-to-back wins in the mid-2000s to the more recent win for the likes of Atletico Madrid and with notable runs for the likes of Espanyol, Getafe and Villarreal, Spanish league sides have always taken a keen interest in the pursuit of the trophy.

It is an understandable focus too, with much of the domestic game swallowed up by the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But despite the notable similarities in the English game, with the economic powerhouses of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City dominating proceedings, Premier League perceptions of the competition portray it as a nuisance.

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp described the competition as “a killer” to his side’s chances of competing for Champions League qualification warning “Thursday and Sunday every week…you’ve got no chance in the Premier League with that”.

Yet the relative progress of a Stoke City team with far less resources than the likes of Tottenham, alongside solid league form, indicates that this may be an incorrect assumption.

Spanish clubs are not the only nation reaping the benefits of Europa League football either, as Germany continues to enjoy relative success in the tournament, with the unfancied Hannover 96 and Schalke 04 progressing to the quarter-finals stage via the group stage.

Is it any coincidence then that Spain, Germany and other Europa League enthusiasts Portugal, excel most at international level?

Encouraging English participation in this tournament could make for a more rounded domestic game, and could offer some solace for fans tired of the continued chase for the so-called ‘success’ of finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Fulham’s previous run in the competition demonstrated the thrills and passion that the Europa League can bring to fans and the game as a whole with few Cottagers fans able to forget the famous victory over Juventus en route to the final.

For the English game to reap any notable reward from the tournament though, a change of perception is required among the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham.

The Europa League is no killer – it could breathe new life into the English game.

By Jack Beresford

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