What is the link between La Liga bottom club Real Betis, French strugglers Lyon, FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic – now mid-table in the English second tier – and Eintracht Frankfurt, fourth from bottom in the Bundesliga?
Thursday nights. The Europa League.
The ugly little brother of the Champions League gets such bad press one sometimes feels reluctant to criticise it.
This week it’s been not so much bad press as no press – the fact it was a considerable part of the extraordinary 900 million pound sterling ($1.4bn) television deal that has shaken up UK broadcasting was mentioned sporadically under the big headline that Champions League football is leaving Sky and terrestrial television and heading to BT.
So why add to the chorus of disapproval? And it is often literally a chorus. The chant “Thursday nights, Channel 5” has been used for years to taunt English teams who have failed to make it to the promised land of the Champions league, the glory of Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Because I remain convinced the majority of clubs are better off without it. And the bigger the club the more this applies.
Europa League Thursdays might be taunting material for fans, it is no laughing matter for managers, players and the increasingly important moneymen at Europe’s top clubs.
Is it not borderline tragic that qualifying for a tournament is a bittersweet experience that can ruin the next season for many clubs?
I used an extreme example at the top. Real Betis. Close observers could argue that they have used completely different teams in the Europa League to La Liga and are therefore giving squad players a vital run out. Their city rivals Sevilla are top of their Europa group and not suffering with their league campaign.
Fiorentina are flourishing on Thursdays and Sundays in Italy.
Well good for them….but it will catch up with them. That’s the painful reality. Maybe the difference between the three day gap LATER in the week is partly psychological but when a team from a major European league visits Eastern Europe on Thursday night then tries to prepare for a much bigger weekend game they suffer badly.
The point was rammed home by Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew after the 1-0 win at Tottenham. Pardew could have been content with heaping praise on his goalkeeper Tim Krul, whose performance was the most remarkable in the Premier League this season so far. So that’s why I was so intrigued he chose to describe Tottenham as “tired”. Then he talked about the effect the Europa League had on his own team the season before.
And that’s what this tournament inadvertently does. Punish those who deserve to be basking in European glory as the fruits of their labours.
Clubs like Liverpool and Everton, who don’t have great squads and missed out on qualification last year, are enjoying the benefit of that weekend freshness.
Those who defend the Europa League tend to be doing well in it, or actually to have won it. Like Chelsea last year, or Atletico Madrid the year before.
Thursday night is more than useful for broadcasters because modern football fans need their daily fix but it was treated as an odd-on, the small cola added to a large burger and fries. Cola lacking fizz in many cases.
Moreover, the awful process of putting eight losers from the Champions League into the last 32 of this tournament is what really discredits it in my view. It’s absurd and demeaning to all involved.
I’ve much admired some of the football Swansea have played in the tournament this year, though would suggest it’s cost them more than a point or two in the Premier League. They have 12 points from 11 games. They are better than that.
Fulham fans will never forget them crushing Juventus 4-1 on their way to the final. Priceless wonderful memories. Undeniably. But they finished 12th that season. Didn’t qualify for Europe the next season….and without Thursday nights they finished eighth. This is not an exact science, but in a league where every point can matter, fitness and freshness of squads can make such a difference.
Three points for Fulham when they were mid-table were not necessarily vital. Three points for a title contender could cost them dearly.
And would Atletico have dropped only four points from 39 playing on Thursday night this season? Maybe. But I doubt it.
I say this to everyone who isn’t a Chelsea fan. Who scored the winner for them in the final in Amsterdam against Benfica. Don’t remember? Don’t care? It was Branislav Ivanovic. I’d forgotten myself.
Uefa have at least, mercifully, announced that the Europa League winners will qualify for the Champions League from 2015. It’s a big step in the right direction for the importance of the tournament.
But the three-day hangover from Thursday nights is here to stay.
Thursday’s child according to the traditional poem, has “far to go”.
But Thursday’s CLUB is also full of woe.
This column appears on the Insideworldfootball.com website where Lee Wellings represents Al Jazeera.