The UEFA Cup will be changing in format to the ‘Europa League’ next season but I can’t see it helping the competition much myself. The Champions League has every game kicking off at the same time, it is well organised, structured and televised. The UEFA Cup on the other hand is pretty difficult to get your head around. There are groups of five teams so you take a week off one of the rounds of fixtures, putting you at an immediate disadvantage if your team is missing the last tie.
That is just one of the structural problems of the competition, I could have talked about the kick off times, which seem to be from anywhere in the mid afternoon to half nine at night. Champions League games always kicks off at the same time, which makes it feel much more like a competition and less like random games between two sides you’ve never heard of.
Then there is the way the teams competing in it treat the competition. Of the English teams competing his season only Manchester City seem to have given it a go. Portsmouth were unlucky in the fact they were in a transitional period, had a tough group and as I mentioned before I don’t think their particular schedule helped them much. I can’t really guess as to how Pompey would have done had the circumstances been different but for Aston Villa and Tottenham it was pretty obvious the managers weren’t that bothered.
Villa were on level terms for the second leg in Moscow, which is a hard place to go at any time of the season never mind mid winter. They also had to play on an artificial pitch and if you were really trying to win this competition you would name your best team. Martin O’Neill didn’t, he played a very much-changed Villa side and who can blame him? Villa are on the brink of upsetting the top-four and qualifying for next season’s Champions League. Even if they got knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League it would arguably be better for them than winning the UEFA Cup so why jeopardise the chance of a place Europe’s most prestigious tournament next season?
Tottenham Hotspur put out a very young side to face Shaktar Donetsk despite having a two-goal deficit to recover. As with Villa, if you were trying to win it would you put out an inexperienced side? Spurs have Premiership survival to focus on and even though I doubt they would go down even if they put their best eleven out for the remaining UEFA Cup fixtures it was a risk Harry wasn’t willing to take. To be fair to the Spurs youngsters they did put in an outstanding performance in their 1-1 draw with Shaktar at White Hart Lane but that is beside the point. Because of their Carling Cup exploits I think they’ve made it into next season’s Europa League anyway so perhaps it is not such a priority.
For the richest club in the world Manchester City winning it might take a bit more importance. They’re unlikely to qualify for it domestically after that poor start and an FA Cup elimination at the hands of Nottingham Forest so if they want European football this season they might just have to be the last team to raise the UEFA Cup. Unlike Spurs and Villa, City need to win for European football next season. I may be wrong but I feel that if Mark Hughes wants to keep his job he probably will need to be playing in Europe next season. Hughes needs to attract top-players and City need European football for that to stand a decent chance of happening. I’m sure City will get there sooner rather than later but for Hughes it could be very important that they are playing European football next season.
Last season Bolton Wanderers played pretty much their reserve side against Sporting in Portugal and were eliminated, this lead to the players left out to be labeled the ‘Lisbon lie-ins’. It wasn’t the players fault they got left out but it shows that even a Bolton side who are pretty unlikely to qualify for Europe again anytime soon weren’t willing to risk Premiership survival for a cup run. This added to Gary Megson’s unpopularity at the Reebok but to be fair to Megson why should the clubs care about a competition like this? It is such a side-show to the Champions League it’s ridiculous.
I’ve had a glance over the rules of the new ‘UEFA Europa League’ and it seems almost as complicated. I think personally they should take it old school and just have two-leg knock out rounds untill the final. It may no be the best way in terms of TV and money and sponsorship but for the teams involved it would be so much better. As a fan it would ust be your team against Red Star Belgrade, Anderlecht or just any team your side would not normally play. Instead you have to think ‘oh god I wonder how Metalist Kharkiv are doing at Braga’ before you know if your team is going through to the next round. The competition needs changing but I’m not sure the new format is a big enough departure from the current failed format to make any difference.