Since it changed its name from the UEFA Cup to the UEFA Europa League and changed its format to be a Champions League-lite, the Europa League has had a stigma attached to it. I would argue that some of it is deserved, but some not so. The UEFA Cup was traditionally a strong competition with a good reputation and heritage and there was a time when it could actually be tougher to win than its more illustrious sibling. The expansion of the Champions League and the concentration of money towards that competition certainly hurt the UEFA Cup and downgraded its importance. In recent years however, it has begun to re-establish its prestige, particularly in the latter stages of the competition and the awarding of a Champions League place to the winner has helped raise its profile.
For years, playing European football was seen as huge, but the concentrated marketing of the Champions League changed the perception of many that playing in the Champions League was the only European football that really mattered. Perhaps it being perceived that way by so many fans of British clubs is a consequence of the money and hype surrounding the Premier League. Fans conditioned to think this way arguably puts the Champions League almost on a par with the Premier League in terms of marketing success. There, in a nutshell, is what modern football evolved itself into: finance, publicity and commercialisation. Lost in there somewhere is the sport, the game we all fell in love with, the winning, the losing, the triumph and the heartache. Sport is unique in the emotion it invokes.
Maybe I’m digressing, but football, as all sports, is about winning, or at least trying to. I can understand prioritising certain competitions above others where circumstances prevail. I’m not naïve; squads have to be managed because you can’t just pick the same eleven players all season. There are also tactical reasons for some changes – horses for courses if you will. However, actively trying to get eliminated from a competition is still an odd concept to me and that is how some Premier League teams have approached the Europa League.
Playing significantly weakened sides, including youth team players, in the Europa League epitomises how the competition is viewed by the majority of the Premier League; with the narrative being that playing on a Thursday and then on a Sunday is a recipe for disaster. Apparently playing on a Wednesday and then a Saturday is fine though. Go to the continent and you’ll find a different attitude to the competition; it still has value, it’s a trophy to be won. Jürgen Klopp’s attitude toward the competition and team selections, in contrast to Brendan Rodgers at the beginning of this season, are testament to that.
Pundits in the UK constantly talk about the Europa League as a hindrance to Premier League clubs. The theory being that trying to win the Europa League is to the detriment to domestic ambitions. For some clubs with small squads, there may be an element of truth in that, but the Premier League sides in the European spots have the resources to cope.
Obviously, players are athletes and cannot be flogged, regardless of how much they’re being paid, but in many ways I think there is a psychological issue here. Klopp has seen the Europa League as a trophy to win, not as a distraction or an inconvenience to a Premier League campaign. The attitude has been one of ‘can do, will do’ and rather than undermine a domestic campaign, it has actually helped it. The annihilation of Everton in the Merseyside derby was a continuation of the form and momentum built around Liverpool’s charge in Europe. Since navigating Augsburg in the first knockout stage of the Europa League, Liverpool have won five of their last seven Premier League matches. Eliminating Manchester United and then Borussia Dortmund has only helped Jürgen Klopp’s men gather momentum and galvanise the squad. Rather than hurt league form, it’s helped elevate Divock Origi and really excite fans. It’s a run that’s even seen Adam Lallana and James Milner find form, whilst Daniel Sturridge has edged closer to full fitness and sharpness. It’s also during this period that Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren formed a solid partnership and Emre Can showcased his immense talent before getting injured.
So, rather than be a hindrance, Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp have shown how the Europa League, like any cup competition, can be a source of inspiration and a foundation to help a Premier League campaign.