"I don't want to win the Europa League. It would be a big disappointment for me. I don't want my players to feel the Europa League is our competition."
These were the words of Jose Mourinho, little more than two months after the bulk of the Chelsea squad he had just re-inherited won the competition with a 2-1 win over Benfica in Amsterdam. It wasn’t quite Brian Clough telling his new Leeds charges all the medals they’d previously won were worthless, but it got the point across. To the elite clubs, the Europa League is little more than an inconvenience.
But it’s nothing new. At least as far as English clubs are concerned, the lustre of the Europa League has been dimming drastically since the start of the Champions League era. It certainly shouldn’t be seen as too easy to bother with: only two English clubs have won the competition in the last 30 years, with only a further three reaching the final in that time.
In a rich man's world
As with the domestic cups, the Europa League has been sidelined by lack of financial imperative. Winning the Europa League won't earn a club more than €9.9m; compare that to the €8.6m given to a team which loses all six matches in the Champions League groups. A team who wins 12 Europa League matches but loses in the semi-finals earns €4.9m – equivalent to finishing 15th in the Premier League.
A pot of gold shouldn’t be the primary incentive for a club to crave winning a competition with over 40 years of history, but money is the best way to develop a club. An amount just shy of €10m is nowhere near enough to help a club in the Premier League’s ‘second tier’ of clubs compete with those regularly riding the Champions League gravy train. But, even then, the scant financial reward is only a minor issue.
The balance of power in European football is tipped very much towards the west. The 2014/15 Europa League will feature four teams each from Ukraine and Russia, and three teams each from Turkey, Belarus and Israel. In contrast, next season’s Champions League has two places each for Ukrainian, Russian and Turkish sides, with just one early qualifying spot each for the champions of Belarus and Israel.
A side effect of this is that English clubs in the Europa League are far more likely to be forced into long journeys east. In this season’s competition, Tottenham traveled 17,996 miles for their six away fixtures. When Chelsea return from Madrid next week, they’ll have travelled 9,292 on the same number of European away days. That’s clearly a small sample size, but given the sheer number of teams from England, Germany, Spain (four each), France, Italy and Portugal (three each) playing in the Champions League, racking up air miles at the rate Spurs did this season is nigh-on impossible in Europe’s elite competition.
The long travel times add to the hangover caused by playing on Thursday night – a schedule which makes the Europa seem more like an afterthought than the appetiser it could be if it were played on Tuesday, with the Champions League held on Wednesday and Thursday.
Recovery vs preparation
Speaking to FourFourTwo's Football Weekly, Tottenham’s Andros Townsend plays down suggestions the Thursday-Sunday schedule has been a factor in Spurs’ frustrating season, though also admits he and his team-mates are now fresher for only playing once a week.
The north Londoners performed badly in Premier League matches immediately after their European exploits this season, with six of their 10 league defeats coming off the back of a Europa League fixture.
Speaking after the 2-0 win against Anzhi in Moscow, then-Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas hinted that his team would be unable to prepare tactically for their home game with West Ham three days later, instead having to focus on recuperation.
"We will try to get at least the minimum sleep, but from Friday to Saturday we will sleep well and recover the players for West Ham,” Villas-Boas said. "We will just prepare for that game on the day of the game, and give the players information on the day of the game."
Tottenham’s lack of preparation showed as they were humbled 3-0 by a well-organised Hammers side, in the sort of showing that encourages the phrase "Europa hangover". With typical bluntness, Tottenham's current manager Tim Sherwood touched on the problem in Thursday's press conference, wondering aloud if the Europa was worth it.
“The last time we qualified for the Champions League, the year before we weren't in the Europa League,” Sherwood noted. “I’m not against the Europa League, It’s just the stats that are there say everything.
"The extra games mean I think we’ve ended up playing 12 more games than Liverpool have this season, and they’re challenging for the title because they didn’t have the Europa League. It certainly helps when you have a whole week to prepare for games.
“That said, I’m sure that everyone at this club wants to finish as high up as possible and we're certainly not going to go onto the field and try to lose a game so that we don’t qualify: that's just not going to happen.”
Swansea would empathise with Sherwood's words about having a week to prepare for games. With their relative lack of European know-how and smaller squad, they struggled all season to balance their continental adventure with their domestic duties. It would be short-sighted to attribute their struggles this season entirely to their participation in the Europa League – Michu has missed half the campaign, after all – but it certainly hasn’t helped.
As things stand, Hull – as the only club with a shot at the Europa League without any pedigree in the competition – look most at risk of being next season’s Swansea. A win over Arsenal in next month’s FA Cup Final would secure a first-ever European jaunt for the Tigers, as would a defeat if the Gunners achieve a top-four finish.
That now seems far more likely thanks to Everton’s midweek defeat to Crystal Palace, although there’ll still be a handful of pessimistic Arsenal fans fearing the ignominy of finishing fifth. But would it really be that bad? Let’s run through the pros and cons of Europa League qualification for every club with a shot of making it through virtue of their league performance. First up, on the next page: Arsenal...