CaughtOffside UEFA Cup journo Bonsy previews this week’s opening fixtures of Europe’s finest tournament. Besides that other one…you know the one.
The Uefa Cup begins in earnest on Thursday night and Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle Utd, Tottenham and West Ham Utd are aiming to emulate Middlesbroughâ€™s feat last year and become the fourth British team in seven years to reach the final at Hampden Park next May.
The Champions League may be the glamorous cousin of European competition but the Uefa Cup is the ultimate endurance test. To lift the trophy clubs are required to compete in fifteen games of knockout and league formats clocking up air miles and familiarising themselves with Thursday night matches and Sunday Premiership games.
This could be a big year for the Uefa Cup. The competition already includes seven teams that reached the Champions League group stage last season: Bruges, Ajax, Sparta Prague, Panathinaikos, Schalke, Fenerbachce and Rangers; and that is before the eight third place clubs from this years Champions League are added in the new year.
For Englandâ€™s representatives the focus will be on progressing from the two legged First Round knockout into the league format, where they are guaranteed four more European nights and a favourable 3 in 5 chance of making it to the last 32 in the new year.
So how do Englandâ€™s Premiership teams shape up for the competition?
The endeavour of last season must be rewarded by not following Everton, Millwall and Southampton of the previous three years, and avoid elimination at the First Round stage. Of the 4 Premiership representatives this week, only Newcastle Utd have progressed to the group stage format before, so a new experience awaits Tottenham, West Ham and Blackburn.
But if there is one club in England whose desperation to win any sort of silverware is widely recognised, itâ€™s Newcastle United. The Geordies began their quest for Uefa Cup glory via the Intertoto 6 days after Italy lifted the World Cup in Germany and, more than 2 months later, find themselves travelling to Estonia to take on Levadia. Their unfavoured opponents have already made history by becoming the first club from their country to reach the first round proper of any European competition. Nevertheless, Newcastle should ensure that this feat is the limit to Levadia’s historic achievements this season and qualify with ease.
Considerably more formidable opponents will visit a packed Upton Park this Thursday and Alan Pardew will hope to have done his homework on the Donâ€™s of Sicilian football, Palermo. West Ham fans will look at this tie as the first opportunity to view their Argentine World Cup stars plying their trade on the European stage. With expectations through the roof, West Hamâ€™s new imports will face a tough challenge from the Italians, who are buoyant after an opening day Serie A win on Sunday.
Tottenhamâ€™s disappointment at losing the last Champions League spot on the final day of the season will be softened by a return to the competition that they have twice won. They will participating in Europe for the first time since 1999, tellingly coming closest via the UEFA Fair Play draw a couple of years ago. Spurs trip to the Czech Republic to face Slavia Prague will be a stern test for Martin Jol’s side against a team that are competing in the Uefa Cup for the 17th season.
Mark Hughes may wince when he glances across to the home sideâ€™s bench on Thursday night and sees Giovanni Trapattoni and his assistant Lothar MatthÃ¤us conducting the newly named Red Bull Salzburg team. The big spending Austrians failed to get to the group stage of this years Champions League but will be aiming to progress in the Uefa Cup. Blackburn would have wished for a more easier tie to kick start their underwhelming Premiership campaign.
So let the Uefa Cup commence and let us hope that the competition gets the recognition, the attendances and the quality of football that fans deserve. How will the English teams cope with three games in a week? Will they have a squad big enough to rotate? Will the fans embrace the competition and actually turn up for once?
With a little luck, come next May at Hampden Park we may witness the rarest of occasions – two English teams walking out to European glory.