Manchester United might as well embrace the Europa League
> United have never won the EL (or its variants) before
> Ajax are no longer a force
> Er, at least we don’t get to play Barca
United's last UEFA Cup game v Rotor ('95)
The Europa League has always been the unfancied uncle of football who longs for marriage but never gets it. The uncle who changes his name — okay, so it might not be your typical uncle — for a “fresh start”, or so he says (he used to be called the ‘UEFA Cup’, for those unsure of where I’m going with this). And despite always being second-best to the other, more superior of uncles, the Champions League, he did still have his glory days, back when curtained hair and Baja jackets were socially accepted. But the Europa League is making a comeback. Sort of.
When I met up with him, what immediately struck me was just how confident he was; considerably less shifty to when I last saw him. I asked him a simple question. Why the smile? “Because of Manchester United,” he said, “and that other team.” He acknowledges that it’ll be shortlived but he’s happy. At the end of our chat, he refuses my handshake and instead embraces me with the hug of a man who can barely contain his excitement (and probably because he’s still single). The Europa League has rediscovered his/its (I’m confused now) groove.
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As it stands, the reasons why the Europa League is better than the Champions are: there really isn’t one. Except, that Manchester United are playing in it. And that counts for some. In an ideal situation, United would want to be nowhere near it. Certainly, in terms of the team’s quality, they’re good enough to be playing in Europe’s premier competition despite some of the things being said about the current side — mostly justified — that they simply aren’t the force they were a few years ago. But they squandered that chance in the group stages and this is all that they deserve because of it. So they might as well embrace it.
“I’m actually really looking forward to playing in the Europa League,” says Wayne Rooney, threatening to write the rest of the article. And why not? The League (can we call it that?) has a fresh smell about it the way all new things do. The teams, for one, are different but it’s still highly competitive. And it’s a trophy the club have yet to win. It’s not the one they wanted in September, but it’ll have to do. Rooney’s a lot more positive: “It’s a new challenge for all of us and we want to win it. There’s no point being in a competition if you’re not going to try to win it. It would be great to be the first United team to win the trophy and that’s our aim.”
Of course, fans of others have indulged in non-stop ribbing. “Thursday night, Channel Five!” they say, and they’ve got a point. It’s on Thursday and it’s on Channel Five. Yep. And it hurts a little. But United have been knocked out of three different competitions so far and, realistically, could finish trophyless by the end of the season; as Mickey Mouse as it may seem, and as unfortunate it is that Five have rights to the Disney-sponsored competition, there’s still silverware at the end of it. Liverpool won it back in 2001 and made it out to be part of a ‘treble’; and so we might as well call it a cup too if things go awry elsewhere and when we win this one (that is, if City win the actual Premier League). Otherwise, what would we be without a trophy? Arsenal? No way, man. No way.
Indeed, why not look forward to it when your last 32 opponents are none other than Ajax? The teams haven’t met each other in who knows how long (who knows?), and while the popularity of the competition waters down the tie a little, it is still a fairly exciting fixture. It’s one for the footballing purists and those who value their history. Just one thing: times are not good for Ajax. Despite having won one more European Cup than United, it is clear that Ajax would happily trade their current position with United’s. Manager Frank de Boer concedes as much: “The financial difference with the big clubs from England, Italy… has become so big that we can no longer compete with these teams. Ajax have become an academy for those clubs. What we see these days is that players leave Ajax in their early twenties for a bigger salary elsewhere.”
Ajax are currently floundering in sixth place in the Eredivisie. They’re without a board and in the midst of a power struggle; and they’ve won just one game in 2012. United, on the other hand, aren’t playing too badly and rightfully go in as favourites. Still, that was the case for when the Reds took on FC Basel — let’s not remind ourselves of the outcome of that one. But United’s uncertainties is a good thing, in a way — it certainly makes for a good one. The Europa League as a competition might not exactly excite you, but a game between two of Europe’s proudest establishments will. Also, who doesn’t dearly love a trophy? It’s all promised here.
And the best thing about the now-happy Europa League? There’s no prospect of facing Barcelona. Kidding. Not.