18 February 2010 — Anfield was far from sold out on a freezing winter night as Romanian Champions, Unirea Urziceni, were nine minutes away from taking a goalless draw from Liverpool. David Ngog (remember him?) powered a header past Alauskis and gave Liverpool a forgettable first leg win. The Reds’ Europa League campaign was underway.
I recall a fan grumbling next to me in the Upper Annie Road End about how rubbish it all was. He even moaned about how naff the sponsorship was compared to the Champions League. He had a point, of course. Liverpool had just come from almost six years of healthy competitive participation with Europe’s elite, and been brought back down to Earth with a Romanian bump.
Getting drawn into conversation with said grumbler, I put it to him that yes it was rubbish, but we’d all be partying come May if we won the trophy. He shrugged and continued to stare out at Pacheco and Insua warming up with a glum expression. Almost eight years on, and the competition seems to have come a long way from its formative years and half empty stadia.
Second Fiddle, but Quite a Prize
Any top European side wants to be in the Champions League — that’s a no-brainer. The Europa League will always carry the stigma of being a second tier competition. However, one nation in particular has enjoyed the fruits of success in the competition and paid it considerable respect each year.
In the eight years since that February night, there have been five Spanish champions in this tournament. Sevilla FC and Atletico Madrid in particular have used it as a springboard for future success, in a way that English sides simply have not.
The rather large carrot of Champions League qualification has seen Liverpool, Manchester United and most recently Arsenal forgo their Premier League obligations in favour of winning the competition, attempting to gain Champions League participation outside of the top four. It is interesting that none of those sides finished in the top four whilst simultaneously going through to the latter stages of the grueling knockout tournament.
However, in all three cases, the tournament was seen as a means to an end. Yes, it was a potential trophy for the fans and players, but in each case it all seemed somewhat beneath teams of that status. Interestingly, both Liverpool and Arsenal fell to Spanish opposition who have treated the competition with rather a bit more respect down the years. Both Atletico and Sevilla have dominated the tournament and in return have seen their football clubs evolve.
Success Begets Success
Both Atletico and Sevilla have relatively recent experience of the ignominy of second tier football. They are considerably sized football clubs, but neither was in a position to realistically challenge for serious honours either at home or abroad as they wallowed away in the lower reaches of Spanish football.
What a turnaround we’ve seen. Since gaining qualification for Europe’s second tier competition, both sides have used the tournament as a blueprint for future success and trophy wins. Atletico beat Roy Hodgson’s brave Fulham team in 2010 and went on to experience their best era in a generation. They’ve since won three more major honours including the momentous achievement of winning La Liga. In addition, they have also reached two Champions League finals since 2010.
Now, this is not to say that their duo of Europa League successes have been guarantees for future honours, but it has instilled the DNA of title winners into a group of players and made their club more attractive to superior playing staff. To win a trophy after such a punishing run makes the next trophy a lot easier. You breed success in the ranks and any decent young player watching from afar will want a taste of it. Your team is more attractive: Better players, better results — they follow each other.
However there is an argument to say that Atletico have always been a big club in Spain regardless of this success. Ten league title wins supports this view. To further underline the case, then, you need only look at Sevilla.
The rise of this club’s European success is astonishing. They have won just one league title in their history, but they hail from a fiercely competitive region of football with no fewer than fourteen professional clubs. In 2001, they were a second division side, and yet in the seventeen years since, they have won the Europa League/UEFA Cup five times.
Their three consecutive titles between 2014 and 2016 turned many heads and they have seen their best players plundered by predatory clubs, however they reached the Champions League last eight this year, knocking out Manchester United and remaining unbeaten in their group against Liverpool. Not bad for a team with one domestic league title to their name.
For Sevilla, the competition was more than just a platform. It was galvanisation into football’s elite. Liverpool, Atletico, Barcelona, AC Milan, and Juventus have all come knocking for their players. They’ve sold stars like Carlos Bacca, Gamiero and Vitolo, but rather than rashly spending their profits the focus has always been on coaching and building a side up with good scouting. How valuable the Europa League has been for these players making their way in the game. Yes, the teams aren’t as many good, but to play and win in such a demanding knock-out competition can only help build a great team ethic.
Leicester and Everton: Prime Candidates
The Champions League remains the pinnacle for England’s top six Premier League clubs. However there is a second rung of clubs directly beneath that group who have fantastic resources and yet haven’t put themselves on the football map in the same way.
You need only glance at 8th 9th and 10th this year to see three relatively large football clubs. Everton and Leicester in particular stand out as comparable teams to Atletico or Sevilla. Just this season, Everton competed in the Europa League, but crashed out in their group, finishing third with four points. For a team with such individual talent at their disposal, you’d have expected better against Atalanta, Lyon and Apollon of Cyprus. There is the mitigating fact that they were in managerial turmoil for that stage of the season, however they been in this competition six times since 05/06 and failed to make a mark.
For a club that hasn’t won a major trophy since 1995, it does seem like another opportunity missed. If they had gone on to make a real stab at it once, and claimed a couple of scalps along the way, well, momentum can start to carry you. Yes, they finished fourth in 04/05 under David Moyes, a wonderful achievement, but they failed to build on these foundations. No trophies have been won, and the club has stagnated, leaving the fans in limbo between 7th and 17th.
Leicester City’s title win in 2016 was remarkable in so many ways, but for a club which can now boast to be the 19th most valuable in the world, they can perhaps look to the examples of their Spanish counterparts for future success. Should they really be just happy to stay up in mid-table? That seventh available place in Europe this season could realistically have been theirs this season, and yet their form has collapsed as their objective of forty points was reached a few weeks ago.
The money men will point to their league status as the priority, but Leicester, with the right investment could be a strong position to be competitive in Europe and aim for a trophy win. They reached the last eight of the Champions League in 2016-17, after all. However, the desire doesn’t seem to be there. Perhaps the prize money and Premier League allure for foreign players has alleviated the need for tournament wins. Yet, given the transformations and recent glory of Sevilla and Atletico, the prospects of a Premier League club doing likewise are not beyond the realms of possibility.
For clubs like Leicester or Everton, they could comfortably sacrifice two or three places in the league in return for a shot at winning Europe’s second trophy and gaining qualification for the Champions League. Who knows what it would lead to? And yet it is Burnley of all teams who occupy this position and face the prospect of Europe’s potential riches next season. The Turf Moor outfit are not in a financial position to make this a reoccurring feat, but for now they have a bigger shot at the Champions League then a lot of bigger clubs sat below them. For the fans of the aforementioned clubs this will be a bitter pill to swallow indeed.