Friday 27 February ~
Aston Villa were bounced out of the UEFA Cup last night by CSKA Moscow. The result wasn't much of a surprise – hardly any of Villa's first team played and the result was met almost with a sigh relief by the club. With Martin O'Neill's team within touching distance of place in next year's Champions League, anything other than the Premier League has come to be regarded as a distraction.
It may be blindingly obvious that the aim of any ambitious Premier League club is to reach the Champions League, but it's equally apparent that a club with Villa's resources stands little chance of winning it. Yet winning has come to count for surprisingly little in football these days. Stacked up against the financial incentives offered by the club game's richest competition – to say nothing of appearing on the same pitch as Real Madrid or Juventus – the opportunity to lift what is a lesser but still major European trophy carries little favour.
That's a shame. It isn't like Villa have spent the past few decades wreathed in medals: two league cups in the 1990s and a European Cup from 1982, back in the era when teams got "nowt for finishing second". Today, there's plenty for finishing fourth, even if you can't stick it in a trophy case. Yet it might be appropriate for Villa to include a replica pile of cash corresponding exactly to the income from Champions League participation and put it alongside the silverware for future generations to gawk at.
One wonders how many Villa fans might have enjoyed a trip to Istanbul in May to watch their team in the UEFA Cup final – and, too, whether the likes of Gareth Barry would have tingled (even just a little) on lifting the trophy. For all the attention the Champions League attracts, its occasions of high drama are generally reserved for the privileged few. Matches of genuine excitement or suspense are rare, and the money-spinning format tends to kill off the wannabes in a clinical and anodyne fashion.
Next season, the UEFA Cup changes its name to the Europa League. According to UEFA's website, the new identity "will help underline the tournament's special character and unique sporting appeal". Let's hope that "appeal" extends to the participating clubs. Or will clubs like Villa continue to value a fourth-place domestic finish more than a good old-fashioned European trophy? David Wangerin