If there was any ever doubt that UEFA needs to revamp the format of its cup competitions, then just pick up this morning’s newspapers and peruse the starting line-ups of Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. After battling through the muddled group stages that required jetting across the continent to reach the knockout phase, both teams have reprioritised at the business end of the season, and Europe’s second best club competition doesn’t rate highly on either teams’ interests.
For contrasting reasons the UEFA Cup has become an unwanted distraction for the pair and few first team players featured in their starting elevens. Villa are attempting to break the “Big Four’s” monopoly on the Champions League spots and Spurs are scrapping for points at the bottom of the table and have the Carling Cup final against Manchester United on Sunday, ironically a match that would see them qualify for the competition next season should they defend the trophy they won last year.
The competition has lost the edge it once it had, perhaps typified by it being the jewel in the crown of Channel Five’s sporting calendar or being shunted away on ITV4. Ever since the Champions League, the European Cup in old money, was reformed, and it wasn’t just the titleholders of each of the continent’s domestic leagues entitled to enter the competition, the lure of the UEFA Cup was always going to suffer.
UEFA had a stab at reformatting the competition by introducing a confusing group stage five years ago, but after that it becomes flooded with the third placed teams from the Champions League. Europe’s premier club competition has the biggest lure and attracts the continents biggest clubs.
From next season the UEFA Cup takes on another guise in a futile attempt to re-launch itself, becoming the imaginatively title Europa League. The qualification has changed a bit and 12 groups of four replace the opening rounds of five teams in a mini-league. Not exactly pioneering stuff, it won’t increase the profile of the competition at all. Not with its more illustrious big brother luring in Europe’s elite.
Martin O’Neill has done a sterling job at Aston Villa and has a relatively thin squad compared to the “Big Four”, but sit in fourth place and six points above Arsenal. Villa have been looking tired in recent weeks and last night’s result meant O’Neill’s side have picked up just one win in the last four, and have lost their last two Premier League games.
Their next three matches are against Stoke City, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, relatively winnable games when you consider they play Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton in the proceeding trio games. With this in mind, few of the first team made the arduous journey to Moscow for the 2-0 defeat to CSKA.
Villa were my dark horses for the tournament, O’Neill has forged a well organised side with a strong English core who can beat anyone on their day, but fourth place or higher in the league means a stab at the Champions League and untold millions for the club. It’s theirs to lose at the minute.
Everyone wants to play in the Champions League, just ask Gareth Barry who harboured for a move to Liverpool in the summer. It’s the tournament of Europe’s elite and this season on average each participant will earn £35 million, even if they exit at the group stages.
The Champions League has quelled the interest of Europe’s elite to form a continent-wide division, something UEFA were worried of, but by chucking money and increasing the eligibility of participants, they’ve inadvertently created these. The revenue from the Champions League has cemented teams’ places at the top in their domestic leagues as it ensures they have the capital to buy the best players, who all want to play in the Champions League.
Ever since UEFA revamped the tournament in 1992 and increased the number of teams from the champions of each country’s leagues to the runners up and beyond, it has devalued the UEFA Cup.
No one wants to play in it.
Pre the reformation of Europe’s club competitions, its previous format worked fine. Each country’s divisional winners went into the Champions League and the cup winners entered the UEFA Cup. Everyone was happy.
That worked. It kept the competition interesting. UEFA are attempting to boost the profile of the competition next season, but they need to look at the larger picture.
Only 300 Aston Villa fans travelled to the Russian capital, that’s under half the amount who travelled to Hinckley United for the club’s reserve team outing, ironically a side that made up many of the players lining up against CSKA Moscow.
Eight first-team regulars were omitted from the Villa starting line up, including Gareth Barry, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Brad Friedal, drafting in youth team players Barry Bennan, Mark Albrighton and Nathan Delfousno.
Tottenham are perhaps an exception in fighting relegation. Again, money is an issue and anywhere from £30 million upwards is a figure bandied about for staying the Premier League, and it’s an amount Spurs can’t afford to miss out on.
Indubitably Harry Redknapps’ kids were a credit to the club, drawing 1-1 at White Hart Lane after a 2-0 defeat in Ukraine last week, but there weren’t too many first team players lining up against Shakhtar Donestsk. Only the most ardent of Spurs fans would have known anything about Jon Obika prior to kickoff.
Of the trio of English clubs in the UEFA Cup, it was the world’s richest team, Manchester City, who fielded a strong team against FC Copenhagen. They are also down towards the bottom of the table with Tottenham, but harbour aspirations of a top six finish next season, and if they are even contemplating luring Kaka or any of the other top players mentioned in the newspapers’ gossip columns to Eastlands, European football is a powerful bargaining chip. Not everyone will move just for money, just ask Kaka.
But if they assemble a starting eleven to rival a Football Manager player’s dream next season and are in a similar position to Villa in 2010, will they do the same?
As long as the Champions League is there in its current guise, the UEFA Cup, or whatever it decides to call itself, will always be a distant second.