Posted by: davidjmarlow | 16/02/2012

What Wenger and Redknapp haven’t said…

Most Spurs fans will have smiled as AC Milan took apart Arsenal in the Champions League (ECL) R16 last night in the San Siro. It provides an exquisite counterpoint to Spurs’ magnificent display against AC at the same stage in the competition last season, and also suggests that the competition from Arsenal for an ECL berth next season is not as threatening as M.Wenger would have us believe. We are also happy we have the evening off tonight in the Europa League R32 as both Manchester clubs face demanding European ties.

As a lifelong Spurs supporter, I share both sentiments – but probably only because the raising of ECL to iconic media and almost mythical financial status, and the corresponding diminution of the Europa League, is a reality we cannot ignore. It is a reality, though, that I believe should be changed.

Firstly the ‘iconistic’ character of the ECL needs to be challenged. This is a competition whose Group Stages (with all due respect to the clubs mentioned) boasted clubs such as Plzen, Bate, Genk and Otelul, and from which ‘giants’ of the European game such as Apoel, Zenit, CSKA and Basel proceeded to R16. Europa League R32, on the other hand, includes major European clubs like Manchester United, Ajax, Porto, Valencia, Schalke and PSV. Tonight, ties such as Man Utd vs Ajax or Lazio vs. Athletico Madrid would certainly not look out of place in the later stages of ECL, and are surely as attractive as Lyon vs Apoel or Basel vs Bayern. And, indeed, our own relative European lightweights like Man City and Stoke should regard their ties against Porto and Valencia respectively as European ‘glory nights’.

A more balanced view of the relative brand merits of the two competitions should also lead to a more equitable distribution of financial rewards. For instance, for 2010/11 UEFA have reported the two ECL finalists (Barcelona and Manchester United) both received over €50m whilst the two Europa League finalists received €7.8m (Porto) and €4.5m (Braga) respectively. This is in the context of around €750m being distributed to the final 48 ECL participants and €150m to their Europa League counterparts (for more games required to win the competition). Naturally, this inequality will tend to reinforce a status quo pattern of European participation amongst leading clubs.

It seems to me there are various ways of ‘squaring this circle’. I have long argued that the prestige of the Europa League(and the seriousness with which English clubs take it) would be immensely increased if success in that competition enabled qualification to the early stages of ECL. For instance, it does not appear to me unreasonable or disproportionate for losing semi-finalists to gain a ECL 2nd qualifying (Q2) round berth in the following season. The losing finalist would enter ECL at the Q3 stage, with the winner getting automatic entry to the ECL Group Stages Play-off (i.e. akin to the position the fourth placed English Premier League [EPL] team gets).

An even more ambitious variant would be for European completion as a whole to have an ECL, Europa League, National League hierarchy. Take the English position of four ECL berths. Each season the two poorest performing EPL teams in ECL would be ‘relegated’ to the Europa League, with the two best performing English teams in that competition being promoted. Similarly the poorest performing Europa League teams would be ‘relegated’ back to the national league – probably to be replaced by the highest EPL club with no European Football and the winner respectively of the FA Cup and League Cup (I accept this requires England to have one additional berth in the Europa League).

There are problems with this initial configuration – for instance, I do think the EPL Champions should always have a chance to participate in the ECL – but it is put up for discussion and debate. My fundamental point remains that there is a place for a strong respected Europa League in European soccer. If the balance between Europa League and ECL is evened out in both prestige, brand and financial terms, I expect improvement in all round football excellence will follow.

I am happy with the 2011/12 outcomes – especially the result in the San Siro last night! But, in future seasons, I would wish to see Spurs challenging for European honours at this stage of the season. If that challenge is at Europa League R32-level, we should know that this competition is worth winning, and does provide a further route back to the pinnacle of European soccer.

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Responses

  1. Of course, this morning all thoughts are with Muamba – but on the more mundane levels of soccer, an update on the relative merits of ECL and Europa League is revealing. As we know, eight teams ‘dropped’ from ECL into Europa League R32 (i.e. 25% of R32 clubs). From R32, only three ECL teams went through to R16 (i.e. 19% of R16), including the two Manchester clubs. From R16 only Valencia survived (i.e. 12% of quarter-finalists). The relative merits of the two competitions is much more evenly balanced than the financial returns suggest…meanwhile, wouldn’t it be wonderful if APOEL give Mourinho and RM a scare?


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