European semi-finals lack illumination as established names dominate

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The staginess of finals – sit behind the goal, wear your colours and hold up your part of the mosaic like good scenery should – is trickling downwards

12 May ~ Lyon didn’t reach this season’s Europa League final but eventually came close enough. They justified me watching their game last night rather than the other semi-final, where Manchester United v Celta Vigo only came to life, on and off the park, in the 85th minute of the second leg. Barring a good half hour from Atlético Madrid on Wednesday, both this season’s Champions League semis were done after the first leg.

A club who have never reached a European final needed to overturn a three-goal, first-leg deficit in front of a big home crowd. Lyon v Ajax offered the only scenario which could engender deafening noise, overwrought emotion, a captivating spirit of adventure and an all-encompassing sense of occasion – basically, the kind of European semi-final I grew up watching; the type UEFA club competition has lacked over the last two weeks and for most of this century.

The corporate staginess of finals – sit behind the goal, wear your team’s colours and hold up your part of the mosaic like good scenery should – is trickling downwards. The semis, with a home match guaranteed, once had a more intimate intensity. Rather than the formal wedding, this was the romantic proposal in your favourite restaurant. Fans could watch, for a wildly random example, their club eliminating Fiorentina from the same spot they had once seen them losing to Hamilton Accies.

The Parc OL last night provided one massive mosaic, for just one club: when Lyon grabbed two goals in 79 seconds of first-half injury time, the roar shook my telly. At Old Trafford there were no mosaics, an atmosphere best described as “nice” and none of that ferociously private glory which makes neutral observers both jealous and a little bit scared. That you’re already thinking about Everton beating Bayern Munich at Goodison in the 1984-85 Cup-Winners Cup only proves my point.

Rather than Everton’s victory over Rapid Vienna in the Rotterdam final, Britain remembers the Gwladys Street end “sucking in” three second half goals after Bayern went 1-0 up on aggregate. Further afield, the zenith of Arrigo Sacchi’s managerial career was securing the 1989 European Cup for AC Milan. But, for Milanisti, thrashing Steaua Bucharest in the Barcelona final pales next to the 5-0 semi-final, second-leg destruction of Real Madrid at San Siro.

On Wednesday Real Madrid reached their third Champions League final of the last four seasons. But having reached the last seven semis, their fans will soon regard the penultimate round of the Champions League the way most of us feel about Europa League qualifiers. The wonder is being lost. Liverpool’s two semi-final victories over Chelsea in the Champions League last decade were intense. Inter overcoming Barcelona at the penultimate stage in 2010 was a glorious soap opera. But there was nothing majorly new happening. It was just big clubs reconfirming they were still big, in a competition merely renamed since last they’d won it.

Fulham coming from behind at a packed Craven Cottage, to beat Hamburg and reach the 2010 Europa League final had all the proper ingredients. Watch any YouTube clips from that night and you won’t see the world’s biggest stadium, best players or most loyal fans. But the joy is untarnished by lazy expectation or overbearing entitlement – and it takes a lot of stewards to contain it..


It was once electrifying when second leg hosts emerged victorious. Even if John Guidetti had converted that 96th-minute sitter last night, what Twitter calls “scenes” would have been confined to the small away corner of Old Trafford. But it would have induced only a sense of embarrassment rather than tragedy in their hosts. When José Mourinho declares a game the most important in Manchester United’s history you know it isn’t. It doesn’t matter that Europa League triumph would mean United have won all three European competitions. They regarded the biggest game in Celta’s history with the same menial practicality as Arsenal’s league win at Southampton the previous evening: it’s all about securing next season’s Champions League spot.

While Lyon’s fans wanted the pure joy of silverware, their owners saw them sitting fourth in a domestic league which supplies only three Champions League teams. As it morphed from UEFA Cup into Europa League, reaching the final gave the likes of Alavés, Braga, Fulham and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk their greatest nights and allowed Rangers, Celtic and Athletic Bilbao to reprise long-lost glories; none of these sides won it but their fans loved the ride.

Awarding a Champions League berth to the winner, however, means European giants will now win the Europa League by design rather than accident. And they’re bringing indifference with their dominance. The clubs who would most appreciate European success will now be lucky to reach even the penultimate stage of the competitions only they can fully illuminate. Alex Anderson