Roberto Martinez was bullish. “I don’t see the Europa League as a hindrance. I think qualifying for us would be a massive step forward. It would bring big occasions that I think we need so clearly. It is a big objective because it will allow us to grow as a football club.
“The answers are very, very clear. If you are asking me, ‘can we get into Europe?’, we will fight with everything to do that.”
Everton have been here before: they played in the Uefa Cup/Europa League four seasons out of five between 2005 and 2010. These campaigns were not a conspicuous success. The furthest they went was in 2008, when they lost to Fiorentina on penalties in the round of 16. That was a relatively “big occasion” but it is fair to say matches against opponents such as Bate Borisov, SK Brann and Larissa do not live in the memory on Merseyside, even if the latter offered a nice trip to Greece for travelling fans.
The Europa League is more highly regarded in Continental Europe, which in part explains Martinez’s enthusiasm. It is not hard, either, to envisage this sharp tactician savouring the thought of European competition.
However, playing in the Europa League can be injurious to a team’s health in the domestic arena. Across Stanley Park many attribute Liverpool’s resurgence this season to being able to concentrate on their domestic campaign without the distractions of a European campaign, especially not one that involves playing on Thursday nights.
Such a view will find an echo on the Tottenham High Road. On Thursday Tottenham play their 12th Europa League tie of the season. Barring an improbable comeback in Lisbon it will also be the last. This follows a dozen matches in the competition last season and eight the year before. Which is a lot of games to reach one quarter-final (last season).
How much has this affected their domestic campaign? Quite a bit, it seems. Last year their results were worse on Sundays after they had played in the Europa League compared to weekends not preceded by European ties (see panel), but this season they have been dramatically poorer. They have on average won 27 per cent fewer points after exerting themselves in Europe. That has been significant. Had they achieved the same 70 per cent points-per-game ratio in post-Europa League matches they would have won eight more points, which would put them second in the table.
This is a rather simplistic interpretation as there are factors, such as the identity of opponents, which can skew results in such a small sampling, but over the last two seasons most clubs have fared worse after playing Europa League ties. In total they have won 47 per cent of the available points after a Europa League tie, but taken 55 per cent from matches that do not follow one. It could also be argued that the cumulative effect of playing the extra matches knocks on even in weeks when clubs are not playing in Europe.
Teams in the Champions League should have the same problem, but they tend to have larger squads – not least because Champions League income enables them to.
There are exceptions and the counter-argument is provided by Wigan Athletic, who will probably play more games this season than any other club. Their first ever European campaign appears to have been a boon, not a drain, the club taking 72 per cent of points post-Europe. Nor, to judge from their current form – seven straight wins in the Championship and FA Cup – has it sapped their squad long-term.
Recent increases in prize money mean for clubs that progress in the competition there is cash to be made. Last season Tottenham earned €5.4m in prize money, plus gate receipts and hospitality income. Had they won the competition they would have taken that to €12m. This, though, is around a quarter of the riches on offer in the Champions League – which have potentially eluded them because of the Europa League’s draining effect on Premier League form.
What must be particularly galling is that Benfica, who took a probably decisive 3-1 first-leg lead at White Hart Lane on Thursday night, are only in the competition because they failed in the Champions League.
They are one of eight clubs bombed out of the glamour competition, and into the last 32 of its ugly sister, after coming third in their Champions League group. Only two of those refugee clubs were knocked out in the round of 32, and one of them, Shakhtar Donetsk, lost to another demoted team. Three more of the last 16 had entered the Europa League after being knocked out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage. Which means only seven of the Europa League’s last 16 actually began the season in the competition.
Indeed, six of the last 10 winners of the Uefa Cup/Europa League came into the competition after failing in the Champions League, including both last season’s finalists, Chelsea and Benfica. This is somewhat dispiriting for those teams who have slogged their way in the Europa League since July (like Swansea, who went out to Champions League failures Napoli in the round of 32).
It does not help that these clubs do not even appear to appreciate victory. Jose Mourinho has made very clear his scathing opinion of Chelsea’s success last year, and while his comments may have been aimed more at its architect, Rafael Benitez, than genuinely meant, the 2003 Uefa Cup winner does set his sights rather higher these days, and so does his club.
However, without Benfica, Napoli, Juventus and Porto the Europa League would lack a certain cachet – they are needed to keep the interest of TV as well as fans.
There will be a big change in the Europa League in 2015-16 which will significantly enhance its status. The winners will gain a place in the following year’s Champions League. That should mean everyone takes it more seriously.
Paradoxically, however, as Champions League rejects will still be parachuted into the competition that will actually be bad news for less well resourced clubs, like Everton and Swansea.
1. Well done for not shouting
Feedback from players was very positive after Lancashire FA held a Silent Weekend. Matches involving players Under 18s were free from shouting by parents or coaches. An occasional “well done” is enough.
2. Backing the manager works
With just a six-point cushion neither West Ham nor Aston Villa are safe, but Sam Allardyce’s Manager of the Month award highlights the wisdom in backing a manager – as does the chaos surrounding Fulham, West Brom and Cardiff.
3. Sherwood deserves better
“We’ll miss him when he’s gone,” said one football hack of Tim Sherwood recently. Few expect Spurs’ open and opinionated head coach to be in situ next season, but this is not just a shame for reporters needing quotes. Sherwood is raw but has much to offer.
4. FA is pitch perfect
“We’re not often ahead of the curve, but this time we think we are.” So said an official after the FA Cup committee voted to allow artificial pitches in all rounds of the Cup. The Conference and Football League should follow suit.
5. Pardew got off lightly
Alan Pardew’s butt on David Meyler warranted a harsher punishment. A 10-match stadium ban would have sent the message, right down to the parks, that such a loss of control will not be tolerated.