When your team is playing a new competition, and is probably banking on winning that competition to salvage a dying season, you start to appreciate the little things; for instance, you actually have something to hope for, no matter how small. As an Arsenal fan (for example), the Europa League would have been weird to watch, given how long Champions League football has been a norm. The competition is Arsenal’s only REALISTIC shot at winning in Europe, and that’s a good thing (a trophy right?). Unfortunately, it’s no longer that simple.
Last year, Man United literally walked to the trophy. No disrespect to the teams they played but let me just list out some of them for you to think about: St.Etienne (lol), Ajax (smh), Anderlecht (what?), Celta Vigo (really?), Rostov (are you serious?), Feyenoord (oh god)…and most notably Zorya (ok, I’m done). Again, no disrespect…but those are really…REALLY…easy teams to beat at ANY level. To further prove my point, NONE of them are in this year’s current competition stage. You want to know who’s in the Quarter-Final? Far FAR better teams.
This year, teams have realized that every trophy counts. Even if it’s a small trophy, just add it to your collection. Arsenal have been doing that with the FA Cup for sometime now and even Man City (more like Pep) went all out to collect the League Cup. Celtic will take whatever domestic trophy they can get their hands on (and make us forget the rubbish they play in Europe), plus Napoli kill every year for the Coppa Italia (if not for Juventus, who can also slaughter for that piece of silverware).
Which brings us back to the Europa League. Take a look at the teams that made the Quarter Final; first of all, 3 of them have won this competition (in different formats) in previous years. In fact, Atletico Madrid has won this competition TWICE. CSKA and Marseille were winners in 2008 and 2004 respectively (when it was still called the UEFA Cup). Then, take a look at the rest of the lineup…Lazio, Sporting Lisbon, Arsenal, CSKA Moscow and the Red Bull-charged duo of Leipzig and Salzburg. Tell me how this competition doesn’t matter again.
In previous years, bigger teams would have dropped out (via losing) so as to let the lesser teams go on and win the competition. Since Mourinho pulled his UCL stunt last season (coupled with the fact that the EL winner qualifies for the Champions League), this season’s Europa League has become a big deal.
CSKA Moscow pulled off a miracle to toss Lyon out (despite losing the first leg in Russia), Atletico didn’t let up one bit in dealing with Locomotiv Moscow, and Marseille made sure there was no way back for Bilbao. Even Arsenal took this more seriously than most games. Nobody’s joking here.
It will be a stellar lineup of fixtures once the draw is done. It will almost have that Champions League feel to it (I said ‘almost’…take it easy). Coupled with the ALREADY stellar Champions League fixtures at the same stage, we’re looking at 2 incredible finals come May.