Manchester begins its walk of shame through the Europa League, but is it all bad?
When both Premier League title contenders crashed out of the UEFA Champions League in early December, embarrassment ran deep in Manchester. The misery was absolute. City, after spending countless millions and United, after being drawn in one of the easiest groups of all, both collapsed at the very first hurdle. To make matters worse, neither side would be able to wheel out that old ‘Ah well, we’ll just focus on the league’ line. Both had been condemned to something, in the eyes of many, far worse than no European football in the New Year. Instead, they would be placed into UEFA’s pariah competition, the dreaded Europa League, where kick-off times are muddled and the irksome European trips stretch farther east to the very tips of Asia; almost out of Europe, almost, but not quite, hanging on by a meaningless thread. The prize money, insignificant. The glory of victory, hollow. The only winners appeared to be rival fans who joined together in a chorus of “Thursday nights, on Channel 5” and worked tirelessly on their quips. (Clear winner was; “Channel No5 – New Fragrance from Manchester”.)
Fast forward a couple of months and whilst the Europa League is nothing the would-be Champions League contenders should be proud of, the dynamic has certainly changed. United fans have taken their misfortune in good humour as they sing “Thursday Nights, in Amsterdam” and serenade their apparently timeless hero Ryan Giggs with a special rendition of his famous song, for “Giggs, Giggs is going to Amsterdam”. One suspects their wives won’t be too happy and really and truly, neither are they. Yet there has undoubtedly been a shift in how the Europa League has been received by the two clubs. After the humiliating defeat in Basel which sealed United’s fate, manager Sir Alex Ferguson damned the Europa League as a “punishment” his side had to accept. Before yesterday’s game that position had shifted, the cup was “significant” and a “challenge” which United wanted to win. A trophy is a trophy. The positives have been unearthed from the bed of despair and whilst some of them merely save face, there are some genuine reasons to look forward to the Europa League campaign.
The draws the two sides have been handed certainly help. Last night’s opponents, Porto and Ajax, are clubs which have rich European history and offered worthwhile competition. Ajax have been looking to return to their Cryuff-inspired ‘total-voetbal’ roots under Dutch legend Frank de Boer. 20 year old Danish wonderkid Christian Eriksen provided glimmers of hope for an Ajax side who despite succumbing to a 2-0 defeat, fared better than many had expected. Porto too, gave City a scare, even taking the lead and outplaying City for stetches of the game before Mancini’s men fought to a 2-1 victory. Had the two been drawn against sides familiar only to connoisseurs of Polish football, the Europa League episode would certainly have been framed in an even more embarrassing light. As it happened, last night’s ties would not have seemed out of place on Tuesday night on Sky Sports in UEFA’s premier competition.
Beyond the significant enough opponents who made watching worthwhile, there is the very real prospect of winning some silverware at May’s final in Bucharest. As they say, winning is a good habit and whilst the Europa League glory wouldn’t be a parade-worthy accomplishment for either of the Manchester clubs, the experience of winning a knock out competition in Europe is invaluable. This may apply more so for City rather than United as Roberto Mancini looks to add to the FA Cup success of last year which brought 35 years of pain to an end for the blue half of Manchester. United are looking to continue a run of 5 consecutive seasons with some silverware to be added to the trophy cabinet and the Europa League would serve to continue that run as they battle their city rivals for the Premiership crown. Wins bring confidence and self-belief, and medals cement that. Playing in high pressure situations and away from home at big grounds is something that cannot be replicated on the training ground, so there is certainly something for the two sides to gain.
It had also been mentioned that the relatively easier opponents could lead to younger players being given some game time to supplement their development and whilst that didn’t quite transpire last night, United did manage to offer minutes to players returning from injury (and on the basis of some of their touches, boy, did they need it). Both sides are in very strong positions before the return legs next week where we may be given the opportunity to scout potential stars of the future.
The negative impacts will however be costly. United are estimated to lose out on almost £20m of revenue against their efforts of last year when they were Champions League finalists. Manchester City will fall further behind as they desperately look to move towards self-sufficiency before UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations kick in. Ticket sales for the return fixtures in Manchester next week have been slow also, and you imagine that would not have been the case were the stakes that much higher and the pre-match music that much better (who doesn’t love that Champions League anthem?!).
It will be interesting to see how the two sides progress through the tournament and how it affects their domestic aspirations. Both have been eliminated from the domestic cup competitions and are now direct rivals in the two competitions they remain in. Perhaps City expended more energy as they battled to a win last night but the news that United’s in-form winger Antonio Valencia is due to be side-lined for 4 weeks may be crucial. Valencia has been in scintillating form of late, driving United to some key league wins. He is now set to miss out on the March 4th trip to White Hart Lane when Manchester United take on the high-flying Spurs. Should United lose with Gareth Bale creating mayhem on what would have been Valencia’s right flank, we may look back at this Thursday night in Amsterdam as one which cost United dear.
All in all, the football was good, the opposition were respectable and the commentary was terrible (Graham Taylor and Jim Beglin? Kill me now!), so it wasn’t too dissimilar from your regular Champions League Round of 16 affair. But it felt timid and the positives were in spite of the over-bearing negative, it just isn’t the Champions League. That fact will become only more evident as the Champions League ties become increasingly epic, Bayern Munich vs Real Madrid on a Wednesday would make Manchester City vs Metalist Kharkiv the following evening look decidedly glum. Unless City and United draw each other of course, in which case the Europa League would start mattering a whole lot. Now, wouldn’t that be fun.