Monday 21 April ~
"Getting into Europe” is something that more than half the clubs in the Premier League aspire to every season, though what they have in mind specifically is the UEFA Cup. As gets hammered home every year, the Champions League remains the preserve of the teams who keep qualifying for it. And that won't change until someone bridges the financial gap between themselves and the big four, who always come through thanks to the strength of their playing resources relative to the rest; Liverpool finishing fifth in their Champions League-winning season of 2004-05 being the exception that proves the rule. The UEFA Cup generates a meagre amount of revenue in comparison and simply taking part in it can prove to be a burden.
Sevilla qualified for the Champions League through their league placing in 2006-07 as well as successfully defending the UEFA Cup. One of this year UEFA Cup semi-finalists, Zenit St Petersburg, will be in the Champions League next season having won the Russian title. But the competition has not come close to being a stepping stone to the Big One for any English club in recent times, such is the imbalance in the Premier League. Sevilla's opponents in the 2006 final, Middlesbrough, didn't win any of their Sunday PL games after a UEFA Cup tie on the preceding Thursday. The ten games that Everton played in the UEFA Cup may yet prove to be a factor in preventing them from qualifying again this season, as they have accumulated injuries to key players over the past two months.
After taking nine points from three games and scoring 15 goals in the process, Villa now look like favourites for fifth place which will guarantee a UEFA Cup spot. Portsmouth could also still finish fifth, although the forthcoming FA Cup final will now be their main focus and unlike Everton and Villa they don't have the fallback option of the Intertoto. Harry Redknapp didn't want to enter the competition after experiencing it once with West Ham, when he felt that his players felt the physical effects of mid-summer football later in the season.
However much of a mixed blessing the UEFA Cup qualification might prove, supporters of teams not involved in the chase will look on enviously. Around this time of the season, match reports often refer to players being “on the beach”. Derby players of course will have been thinking about towels on sun loungers before the end of October, but for those not involved in promotion or relegation issues, the holiday has already begun. There is rarely a better time to play West Ham than on the final day of the season, as Villa may be able to confirm in early May.