The Spanish, English and German leagues rank as the top 3 European leagues in terms of their UEFA coefficient. As such, each are awarded four Champions League spots, three of them automatic, and one through which a team must qualify via a two legged play off tie. As the three strongest leagues, they are deservedly rewarded, with the slightly weaker leagues from Italy, Portugal and Russia given three spots, France, Ukraine and the Netherlands given two spots, and so on down the line.
Recently, the Champions League has been controlled by teams from Spain and Germany. Since the all-English final in 2008, only one of the next six winners has been English, Chelsea in 2012, and the circumstances of their victory might be considered, if not undeserved, then certainly lucky, beating Bayern Munich on penalties in their home stadium. But in Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United (though not this season) the Premier League is perhaps the strongest European league for Champions League level teams in terms of quantity. The quality gap between England’s clubs and those the calibre of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Bayern and Atletico Madrid has been exposed in the last few seasons, but the price that the Spanish and German leagues pay for the privilege of having fewer, but more dominant, Champions League level clubs, is that often the domestic season can descend into a one or two-horse race. These super-clubs tend also to suck up any talent that the lesser clubs manage to unearth, making the chasm between the haves and the have-nots extremely difficult to close. In Spain, this isn’t helped by the fact that Real and Barca can negotiate their own television money, meaning they get vastly more income that the other clubs.
Last season was the first time in a decade that a club that wasn’t Real or Barca won La Liga, when Atleti clinched a breathless race for the title. Still, though the addition of Atleti as title challengers was refreshing, the gap between the title contenders and the also-rans was as big as ever, fourth placed Athletic Bilbao finishing with 17 fewer points than Real in third, and a goal difference that was 39 goals worse off. The season before, the gap between first and third was 24 points and 54 goals. In Germany, last season Bayern finished 19 points in front of second placed Dortmund, and 26 in front of third placed Schalke. Bayern lost two matches all season in the league.
Competitiveness is something the a lot of English football fans pride the Premier League on. Last season, first and seventh were separated by 22 points in the Premier League, as opposed to 31 in Spain and 37 in Germany. The impression is that there are fewer forgone conclusions when the big teams line up against the smaller teams in England, that the depth of strength of the Premier League is second to none. So it seems like such a waste that English teams regard the Europa League, the second tier European competition seemingly catered directly to the strengths of the Premier League, as a waste of time. Tottenham and Everton stand as this year’s second tier European contenders, and as Chelsea showed in 2013 when they took the competition seriously and triumphed, the competition can be worthwhile one.
The problem facing these second tier clubs, is that the chance of meeting a quality Champions League team that finished third in their group and drops down is a likely one. This fear might not be an entirely rational one however, as only 4 of the last 10 Europa League champions have been Champions League drop outs. More often than not, it’s the teams that have competed from the beginning that are holding the trophy at the end. Juventus had the chance to win the Europa League last season but were less than interested in pursuing it, such was their mope after they crashed out of the Champions League group stages. This is often the case with the drop outs.
Tottenham have opened their Europa League campaign with a gritty 0-0 draw away against Partizan Belgrade, whose fans showed their social modernity by unfurling an anti-Semitic banner during the match (this is two years after Danny Rose was racially abused during an England U-21 match in Serbia). It was a stoic performance in an incredibly hostile environment, and Spurs will feel confident they can qualify in first place after the other two teams in the group endured a goalless stalemate as well. That’s if they care to. Pochettinno has the squad to cope with the extra fixtures, and the quality to get to the latter stages. All he needs now is the desire. One sign that isn’t particularly encouraging is that the team that faced Partizan was almost completely different from the line up that faced Sunderland on the weekend.
Everton began their campaign with a resounding 4-1 victory over Wolfsburg, a team who only missed out on a Champions League spot by a single point last season. Ruthless in their finishing and showing spirited desire to capitalise on any defensive error, Roberto Martinez’s side made the first European tie at Goodison Park for five seasons a delight for the fans. Winning so emphatically ought to breathe confidence through the team, and gives credence to the belief that Martinez, always willing to challenge for silverware (to which his FA Cup victory with Wigan can testify), is keen to excel in the competition. Everton only barely missed out on a Champions League spot, something they looked like they’d finally snatch for the second time after they thrashed Arsenal at the end of last season. Only a few lapses against lesser teams foiled them, and allowed Arsenal to clinch fourth place, relatively easily in the end.
But perhaps most crucially, the big, juicy carrot hanging in front of Spurs and Everton, one that until this season hadn’t existed, is that the winner of the Europa League gets a spot in the next season’s Champions League. With Manchester United much stronger this season, and Chelsea, Arsenal and City all improved, this might actually be the best chance for either team to qualify for the big boy’s table next year. With Europa League popularity dwindling, UEFA have thrown a meaty bone their way, and now the main upside of taking the competition seriously is a thoroughly convincing one. No Everton or Tottenham fan would object to making a genuine challenge for the Europa League now that this is on the table.