Europa League starts here

February 13, 2012 Tags: Opinion 19 comments

Manchester United ventures into new territory this week in a competition that nobody at the club, from owners, to fans via the manager, actually wants to take part in. But the Reds will break new ground nonetheless in the Europa League, featuring in the tournament for the first time since its revamp. Adding to the intrigue this week, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will play Dutch giants Ajax for the first time, in a competitive fixture, during Ferguson’s reign when the sides meet at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday.

A bloated successor the UEFA Cup, the Europa League consists – post-Christmas – of 32 teams, eight dropping out from the Champions League, and another 24 having qualified via the group stages. Despite the rebranding, the Europa League has become a tournament that few of Europe’s largest clubs relish competing in; a second tier competition from which all the glamour, and much of the money, is missing.

Twice UEFA has reorganised the competition in the past decade, eliminating the Cup Winners’ Cup and two-legged final, and then adding extra rounds and a group stage. The Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. To win the tournament, United will play nine fixtures, while Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches.

While the competition’s credibility was eroded as the Champions League expanded to include non-Champions in the 1990s, UEFA’s decision to parachute clubs failing in the senior tournament further reduced the Europa League’s relevance. Moreover, the prize money on offer is significantly less than that in UEFA’s big competition. It adds up to a tournament for which there are few dedicated supporters outside UEFA.

Should United win, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest, the club will earn less than half a similar run in the Champions League would bring. It goes without saying that television, and its accompanying money, requires the most attractive games and biggest stars.

Meanwhile, fans’ excitement broadly matches those of the broadcasters; it’s a fact recognised by United, with the club reducing members’ ticket prices and eliminating the much-despised automatic cup ticket scheme for the competition. Those travelling to Amsterdam this week do so with the city’s many other forms of entertainment in mind, in addition to the football on offer. Those stuck at home on Thursday will enjoy Channel 5’s coverage, with kick off at 6pm.

Unusual teams and times are an unfortunate reflection of the European company United now keeps.

And then there is the question of whether Ferguson will take the competition seriously. After all, while the manager has already stated his intention to win the tournament, the Scot will certainly not pursue that goal at the expense of Premier League glory.

“I’m definitely treating it seriously,” said Sir Alex said on Monday.

“The great thing about Thursday is we don’t have a game next Saturday so I can play my strongest team and will play my strongest team. The thing is to look forward to it. It’s still European football and still a good standard.

“I think it’s amazing that, in the 55 years we’ve been involved in Europe, we’ve never played Ajax. When you think of all the draws that have been made, the quarter-finals and the groups, we’ve never drawn them. It’ll be a full house too with a great stadium and a great pitch. They’re not having a great time at the moment but I think, playing United, they will be well motivated for it and always play nice football too.”

The United coach may change his story when Ajax arrive in Manchester in 10 days time, just 60 hours before the Reds play Norwich City in the Premier League. Indeed, those close to Ferguson’s coaching team readily admit that United will ‘experiment’ in the tournament. The Reds’ 38 man squad includes a large number of youngsters and fringe players, many of which may see action if United progress.

Moreover, in Ajax United is facing a European giant now stripped of its potency. While the Dutch club has never possessed the financial clout to compete with the continent’s best, the famed youth academy once produced a string of talent. This is no longer the case, with Ajax’ finest plundered at an ever more youthful age.

Then there is the boardroom strife that has seen two former greats at loggerheads over the club’s administration. Johan Cruyff was successful last week in having Louis van Gaal removed as Ajax’ ceo, after claiming in court that the former Bayern Munich coach was appointed without his consent. Cruyff and van Gaal have clashed, among other issues, over Ajax’ youth academy, with the former seeking to appoint a clique of retired club greats such as Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk.

On the pitch Ajax, under Frank De Boer’s management, has slipped to sixth in the Eredivisie in what is fast becoming a disastrous campaign. Mind you, the Dutch club was hugely unfortunate to lose out on qualification for the knock-out stages of the Champions League following Olympique Lyonnais’ 7-1 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the final group match.

Yet, the side still contains some talent, including the sought after defender Jan Vertonghen, forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson and Danish teenager Christian Eriksen. Indeed, the latter is a player watched by United’s scouts, along with those from many major European clubs. The bidding in the summer is likely to rise far beyond a fee that United is prepared to pay – at least before the Glazer family’s long-mooted IPO is launched.

“There’s a lot of attention on the young kid, you know, the Danish boy,” Ferguson added.

“We’ll see what he’s like and obviously everybody is going to be watching him. Ajax have always been capable of producing great players, that’s the great thing about that football club. When you think back over the years to the likes of Johan Cruyff and Ruud Krol, they were some players.”

Ajax has nobody of Cruyff or even Krol’s talent today. But then again neither, arguably, does United. Welcome to Europe, division two.

United Europa League Squad

Ferguson’s squad includes 13 names on ‘Player list B’, which is those players under 21 and having trained with the team for at least three years.

Goalkeepers: David De Gea, Tomasz Kuszczak, Anders Lindegaard, Ben Amos*, Sam Johnstone*.

Defenders: Patrice Evra, Phil Jones, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidić, Fábio da Silva*, Rafael da Silva*, Ritchie De Laet, Marnick Vermijl, Michael Keane*, Sean McGinty*, Ezekiel Fryers*.

Midfielders: Anderson, Ryan Giggs, Ji-sung Park, Michael Carrick, Nani, Ashley Young, Paul Scholes, Tom Cleverley, Darren Fletcher, Antonio Valencia, Paul Pogba*, Mathew James*, Davide Petrucci*, Larnell Cole*.

Forwards: Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández, Danny Welbeck*, Will Keane*.

* Player is on list B.

Draw – Round of 32

Porto v Manchester City
Lokomotiv Moscow v Athletic Bilbao
Salzburg v Metalist Kharkiv
Stoke City v Valencia
Rubin Kazan v Olympiakos
AZ Alkmaar v Anderlecht
Lazio v Atlético de Madrid
Steaua Bucharest s Twente Enschede
Wisla Krakow v Standard de Liege
Viktoria Plzen v Schalke
Braga v Beşiktaş
Udinese v PAOK
Trabzonspor v PSV
Hannover 96 v Club Brugge
Legia Warsaw v Sporting CP

Draw – Round of 16

Salzburg/Metalist Kharkiv vs Rubin/Olympiakos
Legia Warsaw/Sporting vs Porto/Man City
Steaua/Twente vs Plzen/Schalke
Wisla/Standard de Liege vs Hannover/Club Brugge
Stoke/Valencia vs Trabzonspor/PSV
AZ Alkmaar/ Anderlecht vs Udinese/PAOK
Lazio/Atletico vs Braga/Beşiktaş
Ajax/UNITED vs Lokomotiv/Athletic Bilbao


Ben Hulston - February 13, 2012 Reply

I’m a keen fan of Eriksen – he’s a real talent, and could influence this game. I think we should give this tournament a go, to keep up some momentum. Not only that, Porto / Citeh guarantees a big side out – the same is true of Lazio / Atletico. Schalke, Valencia, Rubin, Udinese and perhaps Bilbao the only sides of note and concern after that in all reality and without trying to sound noxiously arrogant.

The intention should be to try and win it, in my opinion. A European trophy, no matter how pants, would at least be something and, to sound horridly commercial and mercenary, cash is cash no matter where it comes from. Might be half of what one could expect from a run in the Champions League, but at the minute it is that or nada.

Not only that, it might at least keep some Dippers quiet – after all, a second rate European Cup is probably better than the second rate domestic trophy they will no doubt pick up after they inevitably turn over Cardiff in the final.

Petty, but better than nothing.

Andrew Stewart - February 13, 2012 Reply

Not being pedanitc, but it was Dinamo Zagreb who Lyon beat. Did United not play Ajax in the 1970s in Europe?

This is definitely the first meeting under Sir Alex, though there have been friendlies in 1996 (City Ground) and 2006 (Amsterdam Arena)

Competitive games are now the only chance to see United in Amsterdam since withdrawing from the pre-season tournament (it’s invite only, but United have indicated they won’t accept) due to suspensions given to Scholes and Rooney for red cards, 3 years after Gerrard and Baros weren’t banned for red cards.

Was in Amsterdam last weekend and took in a match. Excellent stadium, easy to get to, but Ajax were shocking as they lost 2-0 at home to then bottom Utrecht.

Really hope United win the competition this year. The money might not be the same as the European Cup, but the prestige for being the first English team to win all three European competitions would be fantastic.

The only realistic rivals are Arsenal and Tottenham to win the European Cup in the future

Ed - February 13, 2012 Reply

Andrew – that’ll teach me for believing Fergie and not checking up on it!!

Mike - February 13, 2012 Reply

Very mixed feelings on the whole tournament – I remember being relived in 2005 when we didn’t qualify for it.

Drawing Ajax has made it attractive – I doubt Metalist Kharkhiv would’ve had the same appeal.

Oh and Fergie was wrong – we have played Ajax before – beat them over two legs in the 76-77 UEFA Cup.

Violent Banana - February 13, 2012 Reply

So excited. Can’t wait.

sidney - February 13, 2012 Reply

It’s a trophy United have never won, so I hope we win it

I know people don’t rate it, but if we draw City then I guaratee people will start giving a fuck

But then if we have a big game on Saturday, fuck putting the first team out on the Thursday before

Toby Coughlin - February 13, 2012 Reply

I can see this competition turning out like the 2009/2010 Carling Cup.
United will field a mixture of first and second team players without taking the competition too seriously.
But then we will draw City in a later round and suddenly field a full strength XI.
Fergie will always know which games are the big ones for the club and the fans and there’s no doubt he’ll put out his best team if we draw City.

DeadRevel - February 13, 2012 Reply

It makes sense to stay in the competition. In lieu of the Carling Cup, it’s the perfect way to field young players. I don’t mean en masse though, we should make sure we progress through a few rounds at least so they get experience. In fact I would say this comp is crucial as a ‘transition trophy’, to improve our team and gauge our talent before next season begins.

Is Tunnicliffe coming back or staying at the Posh?

Alfonso Bedoya - February 13, 2012 Reply

I don’t know what the monetary gains are for doing well in this competition… but I bet the Glazers want us to do well.

Gabagool - February 14, 2012 Reply

We should aim to win every game we play in, no matter what the comp is
Having said that, would be nice to get a two goal cushion after this week so fergus can give the kids a run next week.

Digga - February 14, 2012 Reply

good game for cleverley to come back in. and give the POG and maybe fryers a game

nailyclops - February 14, 2012 Reply

We won’t win this competition, plain and simple – there are a number of teams in it that will give us very tough games indeed, even with our strongest XI out. We haven’t even been able to win the Carling and FA Cups, so what will suddenly change in this competition? Anyway, so long as we win the league and City don’t win this, that’s what matters most.

Brown man - February 14, 2012 Reply

And it’s an excuse for the pub on Thurs nights. A Utd/City final would be great for the competition.

sidney - February 14, 2012 Reply

nailyclops said:
We won’t win this competition, plain and simple – there are a number of teams in it that will give us very tough games indeed, even with our strongest XI out. We haven’t even been able to win the Carling and FA Cups, so what will suddenly change in this competition? Anyway, so long as we win the league and City don’t win this, that’s what matters most.

I don’t think we’ll win it either. It’s full of banana skins and teams Fergie won’t rate, which will result in some horrific lineups and formations.

We’ll do well in the big ones because he’ll play something closer to the first team. I think we’ll be alright against Ajax, at Old Trafford at least.

bman - February 14, 2012 Reply

Alfonso Bedoya said:
I don’t know what the monetary gains are for doing well in this competition… but I bet the Glazers want us to do well.

Yeah absolutely, our accounts have taken a massive blow this season — out of the CL, FA cup, and CC at fairly early stages. There goes whatever transfer kitty we had for the summer.

Ed - February 14, 2012 Reply

bman – Seems like the kitty is about £30m, which buys you not much these days. Until post IPO at least….

sheesh - February 14, 2012 Reply

I hope we get knocked out by Ajax so we can concentrate on the league, minimise the risk of losing players to injury and don’t have to suffer the disruption caused by playing on Thursdays and Sundays…oh and I couldn’t give 2 shites about this tournament, either.

han - February 14, 2012 Reply

i really have mixed feelings about this
whilst i want us to win every game we play in every competition, i won’t be totally peeved if we don’t get past ajax
i can see saf taking the piss with some doofus like strike force and gibson quality midfield(yes i know neither play with united at the mo)
having said that if we get a sniff at city, it would be a great way to shit on their parade by knocking them out

kramer - February 15, 2012 Reply

it’d be great to see the kids get a run out. the experience will be immense for them.

not too bothered if we get knocked out by ajax.

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