Friday 28 August ~
Commentating for Five last night, Graham Taylor looked for the positives at the end of Aston Villa's away goals elimination by Rapid Vienna in the Europa League. As many spectators at Villa Park will have been doing while Rapid's shirtless fans noisily whooped it up nearby, he reflected that at least they won't have to play the extra midweek games which might damage their chances of doing well in the Premier League. Doing well enough, that is, to qualify for Europe.
If asked, Martin O'Neill would have to say that the Champions League qualification is his goal for the season. Most Villa supporters, however, would surely accept that a top six finish rather than top four is a realistic target especially given that Man City and Spurs are expected to be much stronger than last year – and also don't have European fixtures to fulfil. So the competition that used to be called the UEFA Cup, until its pointless and pompous rebranding, looks ever more like the creation of a satirist intent on highlighting one of the many absurdities of modern football.
The teams that reach the Europa League final will have played a minimum of 16 midweek matches along the way, possibly more if, like Fulham, they had to enter the competition in an earlier qualifying round. But even the team that wins the cup in Hamburg in next May will only have made a fraction of the money hoovered up by the clubs who take part in the Champions League group stage. CL group participants pick up a minimum of £5.4 million plus £600,000 for every win and £300,000 for a draw. Europa League teams receive £1m for reaching the group stage with £40,000 for a win and half that for a draw.
Premier League managers have been rightly criticised for fielding under-strength teams in the knockout stages of the former UEFA Cup – as Villa themselves did in 2008-09 and Bolton the year before. But you can see why they might not respect the competition given that UEFA belittle it too. UEFA created the Europa League in imitation of the Champions League as a competition with centrally negotiated television rights that are designed to improve the prize money on offer to competing clubs.
Yet they still allow teams who have finished third in the CL groups – a position that can be reached without winning a single game – to drop in at the last 32 stage. It's a tournament that seems to be designed to punish those clubs who aren't good enough for the top competition. So should Villa pull off a shock and qualify for next season’s Champions League, there’s every chance they will find themselves flung back into the unlovable Europa League after Christmas. In which case, Martin, you might at least try to win it.