Sevilla Showing Why the Europa League Should Be Embraced, Not Shunned

Guillem Balague@@GuillemBalagueFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2015

Associated Press

Sevilla are just one match away from gaining automatic entry into the UEFA Champions League via the very competition that some British clubs and players have treated at best with indifference and at worst with disdain.

The Andalusian club start as firm favourites to retain the Europa League trophy they won a year ago in Turin when they line up against Ukrainian side Dnipro on Wednesday night.

Victory would make them the only side ever to have won the tournament—either in its present form or as the old UEFA Cup—four times, only this time around UEFA have decreed that victory should come with a Champions League spot.

And a place at the top table of European football is the very least they deserve and one they came tantalisingly close to gaining automatically through their finishing league position, only to be pipped at the post for fourth place by Valencia, who matched Sevilla’s last-day victory at Malaga with a hard-fought away win at Almeria.

SEVILLE, SPAIN - MAY 07:  Kevin Gameiro of Sevilla celebrates scoring his team's third goal with team mate Coke of Sevilla during the UEFA Europa League Semi Final first leg match between FC Sevilla and ACF Fiorentina at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on M
Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

While other clubs, noticeably in England, have been alternately "sniffy" and/or patronising about the competition, it is one dear to Sevilla’s heart and also one that guarantees that, should they manage to beat Dnipro, they will do so safe in the knowledge that they can launch a Champions League campaign with as much valuable and vital European experience as just about anyone else in the competition.

Last season, Atletico Madrid came within a minute of lifting the ultimate European football club prize, and one of the main reasons that they came so close was because of the copious amounts of experience they had banked during campaigns that took them to two Europa League wins.

The reluctance of many to embrace the competition is perhaps symptomatic of just why Premier League football, despite being awash with money, is languishing, some would say, years behind in European terms.

Swansea's Ashley Williams said he would prefer to concentrate on the Premier League rather than playing in the Europa League.
Swansea's Ashley Williams said he would prefer to concentrate on the Premier League rather than playing in the Europa League.Stu Forster/Getty Images

When defeat to Manchester City effectively ruled out Swansea City’s chance of qualifying for the Europa League, midfielder Ashley Williams announced to the media that he was relieved not to be facing a Europa League campaign. “I really enjoyed playing the games but it is very difficult," he said, per Stuart James of the Guardian.

And then, almost as if talking about a holiday destination that was "OK" but not one he’d rush back to, he added: "I’m glad I’ve played in it once in my career; it wouldn’t have been doom and gloom if we had got in there but I’d prefer to concentrate on the league."

I think my friend and colleague Raphael Honigstein summed it up perfectly and with characteristic dryness when he tweeted: “Understandable. Playing in Europa League could hamper Swansea finishing in Europa League places. Oh.”

The point he makes is simple and pertinent. Sevilla have aspired to European glory because they know better than anyone else that the likelihood of lifting the 38-game marathon of La Liga is, if not impossible, certainly far more difficult than winning the comparative sprint that is the Europa League.

And let’s face it, Swansea have even less chance of winning the Premier League than Sevilla have of taking the Spanish equivalent. 

Unai Emery, left, has led Sevilla to back-to-back Europa League finals.
Unai Emery, left, has led Sevilla to back-to-back Europa League finals.Handout/Getty Images

The idea that playing in the Europa League makes relegation more of a possibility does not stand up statistically. When Fulham reached the final of the competition in 2010, they finished that season in 12th position. Relegation at the end of the 2013-14 season did not come after a season in Europe. Many more examples could be used.

The fact that the competition, unfairly dubbed Europe’s "big booby prize" by Richard Innes in the Daily Mirror, now comes with Champions League qualification is Sevilla's good fortune, and if it concentrates the mind of clubs like Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa or Southampton to treat it with a little bit more respect, then so much the better.

Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood said many of his players are not interested in the Europa League.
Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood said many of his players are not interested in the Europa League.David Jones/Getty Images

The chance to play in Europe at any level should be seen as a chance to grow as a club, to learn and not as an encumbrance nor as a chore. It should be viewed as an opportunity to give shining lights in what should be a vigorous, pro-active academy the chance to strut their stuff on a European stage or a platform for out-of-form or out-of-favour players to show their clubs what they are really made of.

But don’t hold your breath. Aston Villa could earn their place if they beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final this weekend, but neither manager Tim Sherwood nor Chief Executive Tom Fox believe a Europa League place will encourage players to join the club in preference to others.

“The main thing,” Fox told his local paper, the Birmingham Mail, “would be winning the FA Cup. I am more focused on that than what it means for Europa League qualification.”

“A lot of players are not interested in playing the Europa League,” said Sherwood. “It would only really be different if you were in the Champions League.”

One player who would beg to differ is Liverpool defender Alberto Moreno, who signed from Sevilla at the start of the season, shortly after Sevilla won the final last season against Benfica.

The Spanish full-back told the Liverpool Echo: “I’m a big fan of the Europa League; you know I can go home and look at my medal in my trophy cabinet at home which I’ve already won. I love it.”

He added: “For any player and any fan, winning any trophy—not least at a European level—is absolutely something positive. We always want to win trophies, let’s face it, and I enjoyed it when we won.”

English clubs take note.

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