So tonight we reacquaint ourselves with the UEFA cup, sorry the Europa League, for the first time in almost eight years.
The last time we were in this tournament I think we exited to Celtic, a via a superb John Hartson effort at Anfield, however before that we won the thing in a somewhat bizarre but memorable final against Alaves by 5-4.
Since then the tournament, and sadly Hartson’s predicament, has changed. Basically the competition appears to have been left in the Champions League wake financially and therefore, as is sadly the case these days, in terms of credibility. Rather than try to plough its own furrow and try and distinguish itself through offering something unique in terms of format the UEFA Cup foolishly tried to replicate its “big brother” via series of bafflingly tiresome group stages leading onto a knockout format. It is at this point where we join the competition tonight.
So how will we approach it? As I write, Arsenal are making heavy weather of it against Porto – by the way anyone remember Thierry Henry taking a quick free kick against the Mancs in the early 2000s? So, at the moment, I feel like we are on some form of “European Community service”, serving penance or punishment for not doing our Champions League homework, having our Tuesday or Wednesday privileges withdrawn and being made to stay in on Thursday night and do our UEFA Cup lines. However, looking this logically I don’ think there should be any shame and I argued this in a previous piece written on this blog in November – because I’m lazy and do not feel inclined to repeat myself click here to read it.
OK if you can’t be bothered (I don’t blame you) I’ll summarise briefly. We have proud history in the UEFA Cup it was our first European Trophy in 1973 won under Bill Shankly after years of trying to hit silver on the continent. I don’t quote my own stuff but…..
“This season marks the 50th anniversary of Shankly’s arrival at Anfield so there will be no shame or embarrassment if we attempt to repeat the ground breaking feat he and his team achieved in 1973? In fact it will be a fitting”
So terms of our history and our position as this sceptred isle’s most successful and most decorated European team we should take this tournament seriously. However, times have changed and one wonders if what will really be the case? Rafa has made the right noises saying that he respects the competition and fair enough, he has won it with Valencia. However clearly the priority, for all sorts of reasons not just footballing, is to qualify for the Champions League next year and I suspect that at the first inkling of the UEFA Cup interfering with that goal it will be given short shrift?
If we win the thing, and I am not arrogant enough to assume that this will be a cakewalk and that we will, it will only be seen as a smoke screen hiding supposed deficiencies. If we do get fourth place at the expense of this tournament then nothing will have changed this season will continue to be regarded as a bad one and the competition will be added to long list of tournaments we have exited in the campaign. In short, we can’t win?
However, should our agenda be determined by the standards and expectations of those outside the club? Of course not. To do well in another tournament could increase confidence and actually help our quest for the top four and it would certainly give everyone at L4 something to cheer about? It is a sad indictment of today’s game that success is measured in terms of qualifying for certain tournaments and picking up a cheque, winning is almost a “nice to have” but not the be all and end all?
Regardless of what club accountants or even managers tell you this should never, never ever be the case, fans won’t remember what we earned in a season. As ever true success is picking up a silver pot in May and we haven’t done that since 2006, so let’s forget about what everyone else thinks or will say and go for it!
PS: By the way we are playing Unirea Urziceni and I think we’ll win 2-0. Enjoy the game!