It’s that time of year again when teams once excited about being in the Champions League see their hopes of more Great European Nights™ swiftly dashed (So long, Liverpool. Fare thee well, Atletic Bilbao.) This is also the time of year when I tend to get philosophical about the Champions League and its much maligned sibling, the Europa League. Because this week’s match reports will invariably talk about how a team’s elimination means it’s been “relegated” to the Europa League. Often peppered in are references to the horror of having to play on (gasp!) Thursday nights.
What is with this belittling of the Europa League?
As I’ve written before, the Europa League – particularly in the knockout stages – can feature genuinely competitive matches played by teams who are truly hungry to show their quality on the European stage. I love the Champions League as much as the next fan, but let’s face it – the UCL increasingly features only a handful of teams who can hope to genuinely compete for the title, making the Europa League a far more attainable goal for the vast majority of European football clubs.
So, why denigrate it?
There are certainly aspects of the competition that can – and, IMO, should- be tweaked (For instance, teams exiting the Champions League at the Group Stage shouldn’t be allowed to join the Europa League) But it’s still a worthy competition and shouldn’t be diminished in an attempt to mock teams that have failed in the Champions League.
*steps off soapbox*
Anyway, draw day for both competitions is a few days away. I’d look forward to it more if I didn’t know Uefa was going to find new, dumb ways to drag out the draw ceremony.
Welp! Here we are. After 9 looooong months, the finalists for the two European competitions are
Champions League: Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid
Europa League: Benfica vs. Sevilla
I need to get this out of the way: I do not understand how the Europa League final will be contested in Juventus Stadium, but not by Juventus other than to once again lament my terrible prediction skills.
As for the Champions League, the road to Lisbon apparently goes through Madrid.
With Real and Atletico advancing to the Champions League final, it’s that time of year where football pundits declare this or that footballing approach to be dead. Because football pundits apparently have the attention span and perspective of over-caffeinated teenagers.
Can we just say that the footballing approach that is deemed superior is usually the one that is currently being employed to win? Can we also admit that different approaches to the game can win in different circumstances?
When Barcelona was cleaning everyone’s clock a few years back, tiki taka was all the rage, and folk were falling over themselves to praise it. Fast forward to 2013, when Bayern Munich was winning everything in sight, and their brand of football – counter attacking, with a focus on physicality – was being lauded as the best EVAH!
I’d love it if everyone – pundits, fans, players, managers – just owned that they were reacting to who and what was winning in a given moment.
And failing that, it really is ok to just say Team A played better than Team B on the night.
Juventus is really trying my patience losing to Benfica in the Europa League. They should be winning this competition easily.
In the Champions League, we had four very expensively assembled teams and they managed to come up with ONE goal in two games. So the less said about that the better. Say what you will about the Europa League, but at least Benfica, Juventus, Sevilla and Valencia scored some goals in their games.
The two top European Competitions have their final fours (see what I did there).
In the Champions League, the semi-finalists are
The post-mortems on the quarterfinals are as numerous as they are repetitive, featuring headlines about Chelsea’s remarkable comeback, Bayern showing their class, Atletico being the romantics/hipsters choice and Real scraping into the semi-final round.
There are things I love about this competition, but when it gets to this stage, it often feels anti-climactic, probably because it’s usually the same 3 or 4 teams competing for the trophy every year. And as I’ve said before this is my least favorite part of the tournament because the stakes are so high that it makes the actual games fairly dull (though that doesn’t mean I won’t be watching).
In the Europa League, Benfica, Juventus, Valencia and Sevilla have made the semi-finals, with Valencia coming back from 0-3 down to beat Basel. Kudos to Valencia, but I would have liked to see Basel in the semis.
I’d like to get excited about the draw on Friday, but I know UEFA’s going to drag it out.
So, we have our Europa League quarterfinal matchups.
Juventus v Lyon
Benfica v AZ
Porto v Sevilla
Valencia v FC Basel
I stick by my prediction that Juventus will win this tournament. They’re still the best team left in the draw, and the final will be played at Juventus Stadium. How could they NOT win this?
Today’s results have me feeling good about my decision to fancy the unfancied.
Not sure how it happened, but FC Salzburg (aka Red Bull Salzburg) beat Ajax 3-0 – in Amsterdam no less. Likewise, how did Dnipro beat Tottenham.
Other teams that unexpectedly prevailed – or drew – against more well-known opposition: PFC Ludogorets of Bulgaria somehow beat Lazio 1-0. FC Chornomorets Odesa held Lyon to a 0-0 draw, while Maccabi Tel Aviv also held FC Basel 0-0. Maribor drew Sevilla 2-2 – after taking an early lead. Anzhi and Genk also played to a 0-0, which puts a dent in my only-the-Champions-League-KO-stages-are-cagey thesis. (I guess the high stakes in European competition makes everyone cautious)
Juventus easily beat Trabzonspor, and this leads me to my main prediction for this season’s Europa League. I’m not a big fan of declarative it-shall-be-so statements, but Juventus have to win this competition easily. Frankly, they are the best team left in it, and no other team should even get NEAR beating them from now through the final.
The lone surprise of this matchday was Swansea City and Napoli drawing 0-0. I can’t believe Napoli couldn’t score ONE goal during that game.
Bayern Munich over Arsenal and Atletico Madrid beating AC Milan – though only just? Maybe my prediction skills aren’t so bad after all*
Also – I think I read the best description ever of the Champions League – from The Guardian’s Daniel Harris in the preamble to his minute-by-minute for the Atletico/Milan game:
One of the many and great
horrificities peculiarities about other people is finding that the things we like about them are also the things that we don’t like. The ability to love us, for example.
And that’s your “Champions League”. On the one hand, it’s always very brilliant, not something that can be said of very much. But, on the other and in identical aspect, it’s a protectionist racket that facilitates brutal wealth, absurd nationalism, and vomitous entities. On the one hand, it brings us surprise but legitimate thrills, like Dynamo Kiev in 1998, Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 and Porto in 2004. But, on the other and in identical aspect, the aforementioned quickly pillage their most valuable assets – hell, it’s even happened to Borussia Dortmund, last season’s finalists and the club with Europe’s highest average attendance. On the one hand, there is generally a goodly selection of clubs with a goodly shot at winning at it. But, on the other and in identical aspect, the accordant prize money ringfences domestic titles, winnable only by frequent competitors.
Europa League tomorrow, so I’ll be checking my GoalLIVE app regularly for score updates.
*or, the Champions League is REALLY easy to predict at this stage