Both sides will be unseeded for Monday’s draw for the last 32 of the 2014/15 Europa League.
The Europa League is not the most fashionable football competition in the world – it is the Wimpy of club competitions, squashed by its bigger brothers and not even a little bit cool – stuck somewhere between the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and the French League Cup.
One look at the line up for the last 32 of the tournament, however, shows that it is a tournament that has a genuine level of base quality. It has both big name clubs, with Liverpool and Inter Milan both featuring in Monday’s draw, and some of the continent’s most enterprising and attacking young teams in the likes of Vfl Wolfsburg and Everton.
Perhaps the Europa League is so maligned because of the disparity in the way that teams approach it – just looking at those from the Premier League, Liverpool have suddenly fallen into it because of their incompetence in a bigger competition, Everton have approached a return to continental action with a swagger and a verve that is befitting of their ambitious young manager, whilst Tottenham Hotspur have tediously and haplessly fumbled through a mediocre group without ever really looking like they wanted to be there.
Liverpool and Tottenham, in particular, should put there embarrassment about being in the competition to one side, however, because it offers them a golden carrot that already looks like being eaten by other clubs in the Premier League – a place in next season’s Champions League.
Obviously this requires the base assumption that none of the three English clubs will finish in the top half at the end of the season but, whilst we would not write any of them off, the signs right now are not good. Liverpool are a bad team playing badly, Tottenham are a confused team playing badly and Everton are a useful team playing badly. That all three find themselves behind Arsenal in the table, despite a lurching season of perma-crisis at the Emirates Stadium, should tell us all that we need to know about their top four hopes.
Whilst the addition of a Champions League place is yet to pick the reputation of the competition out of the dustbin, this is a situation that is likely to change as the season develops and some of Europe’s biggest clubs find themselves out of the running in their domestic leagues. New Inter manager Roberto Mancini, for instance, has already indicated that the Europa League probably represents their best chance of a return to the top table after a dismal Serie A campaign to date.
A focus on the Europa League would ordinary constitute an idealistic, romantic attempt to ‘win a trophy’ – but it should now be seen as a pragmatic choice for a team such as Liverpool or Tottenham. We could even see the bizarre scenario of players rested in league games as teams favour the Europa League.
It will also provide extra motivation for teams such as Liverpool and Tottenham as the competition progresses, with some of the best teams in the competition and potential winners from smaller nations – the likes of Ajax, Anderlecht, Salzburg and Zenit immediately spring to mind – already likely to be assured of Champions League places through their domestic finishes.
This is not to say that winning the competition would be a formality for any of the English clubs if they do choose to take it seriously. The line up for the last 32 is perhaps the most imposing in the competition’s history, with teams such as AS Roma, Vfl Wolfsburg, Ajax and Villarreal not even seeded for the first knock-out stage.
But what the Europa League could do is save one club’s season and perhaps one manager’s job. Even if they miss out on Europa League qualification through the league, winning the tournament itself would constitute a successful season for Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez or Mauricio Pochettino. It is an opportunity that they would be foolish and arrogant to ignore.