Even the most optimistic of Manchester United supporters would admit that UEFA Champions League qualification through the Premier League is out of reach this season. So naturally, Manchester United should target UEFA’s secondary European competition, the Europa League. I have to confess, I’m not a fan of this tournament. And the more I bring this topic up, the more I find that a lot of soccer fans agree with me.
The Europa League hasn’t always been like this. Having provided some great moments for Europe’s most prominent teams including Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Juventus and United’s great rivals Liverpool, the Europa League was at one point a genuinely coveted trophy. All of which makes its recent fall in status even more glaring. Since the Europa League is played on Thursday nights for television purposes, many clubs see it as more of a hindrance to league form than a worthwhile competition. The matches have often featured under-strength line-ups and youth players, turning a once prestigious tournament into glorified friendlies. Worse yet, it has turned into an absolute death knell for Europe’s coaches.
Of the 48 teams taking part in this year’s group phase, an astonishing 19 of them have undergone a change in manager since the first round of games that were played in September last year. This includes all three English clubs (Wigan, Tottenham and Swansea) as well as long-time big hitters Valencia and Lazio. Whilst some of those clubs (notably Anzhi) were due to other factors, the fact remains that almost 40% of participating clubs now have a different manager from when the competition started.
It is the fates of Andre Villas-Boas and Michael Laudrup that have received the most attention in the UK. Whilst nobody knows what would have happened had they not been playing on Thursday nights, Manchester United manager David Moyes needs to look no further than the other end of the East Lancs Road for evidence of what not qualifying can do for you. After missing out due to league position last year, Liverpool have undergone a dramatic transformation in fortune. Brendan Rodgers found managing an assault on both domestic and European fronts too much for his team last year, which resulted in a seventh place finish in the league. The finish also resulted in a real fight to keep his star striker Luis Suarez at the club last summer. This year, solely focused on the Premier League and powered by Suarez and strike partner Daniel Sturridge. Liverpool find themselves at the top of the Premier League table entering April, along with boasting the most prolific attack in the division.