Journey to the centre of the Europa League – The journey’s end?

Some journeys are destined only for a dead end. Amid the footnotes of a relentless news timeline this week, all UEFA competitions were belatedly, but inevitably, postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. European football’s governing body has since invited representatives from all of its member associations to a video conference next Tuesday to discuss their response to the crisis. An extraordinary meeting for extraordinary times.

But the week had started very differently, with UEFA making bold statements about long-term concerns.

We understand that the European ecosystem is very much connected. We have to stick together. We have to discuss the future of European football. (Then) we will all have to step back a while.

These were the conciliatory words of UEFA’s head honcho, Aleksander Čeferin ahead of the European Club Association’s 24th General Assembly, set for Budapest on 30/31 March, before global events intervened. Not in response, as you might expect, to the growing number of closures and postponements resulting from a fast-spreading health pandemic, but instead on the long-term future of UEFA competitions.

Although Čeferin claimed that, in the end, decisions about the make-up of the Champions and Europa (plus Conference) Leagues will be made by the UEFA Executive Committee, he also acknowledged the immense power wielded by the clubs:

I think we will agree very soon because all the leagues and 95% of the clubs know what the principles of European sports – and especially football – are.

The remaining troublesome five % may be populated by the super-rich megaclubs of the ‘Big Five’ leagues, who wish to establish a cartel of guaranteed participation – regardless of sporting merit. Such a direction of travel would not only lead to a stale, valueless ‘product’ in an overhauled Champions League, but also serve to unfairly restrict the ambitions of Europe’s second and third tier clubs.

Those on the outside, who currently flit between Europa and Champions League – occasionally daring to threaten the established order, like Leipzig and Atalanta this season – would have their horizons restricted even further than at present. The illusion, at least, of potential progress is fundamental for any competition to thrive.

While Čeferin tried to put a positive spin on such machinations, his announcement that UEFA competitions will introduce thicker lines for offside decisions reviewed by Video Assistant Referees was greeted gleefully by fans and penalty-box poachers alike.

This apparent attempt to encourage more goals can be deployed under the existing laws of football without need for IFAB’s intervention. The game’s lawmakers allow competitions to determine the level of accuracy of their VAR systems, with no specific law about the width of offside lines, meaning this change could be implemented when continental competition resumes.

Rather inaccurately, Čeferin told Sky Sports: “One centimetre offside is not offside,” before clarifying:

That’s not the meaning of the rule. And it has to be clear and obvious mistake for VAR to intervene. So, thicker lines are essential because the line is drawn subjectively.

Day by day, the line governing whether the professional game could go on had, too, been ‘drawn subjectively’ by governments continent-wide. On Friday, however, that line was re-drawn in bold, red marker pen.

Early in the week, UEFA had already joined several domestic leagues in banning pre-match handshakes between players and officials but stopped short of actually postponing fixtures. By Wednesday though, events at executive level in Spain and Italy had forced their hand. Both Roma’s much-anticipated trip to Sevilla and Inter v Getafe were postponed. When they will now take place – if ever – remains a mystery.

Of the ties that did proceed, several were played without fans present.

Wolves played Thursday’s first-leg tie at Olympiacos behind closed doors, with around 1,000 travelling fans forced to cancel their trip. The game played out in the eerie silence of a near-empty stadium, though Wolves voiced doubts about whether it should kick off at all, given the Olympiacos (and Nottingham Forest) owner Evangelos Marinakis had already tested positive for COVID-19.

Plain-speaking boss Nuno claimed that going ahead was an “unnecessary risk” after UEFA rejected their request to postpone the game on Monday.

“There are some things that are more important than football,” said a forthright club statement.

The good health of our pack and the general public is one of them. Our position is that the trip poses an unnecessary risk to our players, staff, supporters and the families of all who travel, at such critical and uncertain times.

Nevertheless, the show limped on. Rúben Semedo’s ludicrously crude challenge on in-form Diogo Jota saw the home side go down to ten men with more than an hour left to play. Then Youssef El-Arabi, whose goal killed off Arsenal in the last round, netted against the run of play before Pedro Neto’s deflected free kick rescued a draw for the Premier League side.

Ibrox, on the other hand, remained open to supporters on Thursday, as Rangers hosted Bayer Leverkusen.

Leverkusen coach Peter Bosz had warned his men not to underestimate Steven Gerrard’s side ahead of the tie, particularly given a growing injury crisis in his ranks. Sven Bender had limped off during the weekend’s 4-0 slaying of last year’s Europa League semi-finalists Eintracht Frankfurt, joining his twin brother Lars on the physio’s table. Star striker Kevin Volland and his remarkable size three feet were unavailable too.

Ex-Ajax manager Bosz said, before kick-off: “We have to be ready. They deserve respect because of the results they have achieved in the Europa League this season.”

They have beaten Braga, Porto and Feyenoord, so we know they are dangerous. Rangers are a traditional big club, so I’m not surprised to see them at this stage. They deserve to be here.

It was a stiff task, however, for a ‘Gers side which has faltered badly in the league of late. Leverkusen, by contrast, had hit their stride, with gifted Brazilian teenager Paulinho netting a brace and providing an assist on his first Bundesliga start. The 19-year-old arrived at the club from Vasco da Gama back in the summer of 2018 but has only now made his full debut.

In the absence of Volland, against Frankfurt, Paulinho was deployed behind another highly rated wunderkind, 20-year-old Kai Havertz. Often labelled “the new Michael Ballack”, Havertz scored 17 times last season but only twice in the Bundesliga before the winter break.

His haul of six goals and seven assists in all competitions since the turn of the year, however, proved that he’s “the full package,” according to Bosz. Last week, Havertz became the youngest player to reach 30 Bundesliga goals, prompting his manager to declare: “He’s incredibly important for the team.”

A vibrant young line-up were intent on ending a trophyless run which stretches back to their last DfB Pokal win in 1993. The club cruelly called ‘Neverkusen’ by rival fans keen to tease their perennial failures must soon convert promise into trophies – before the likes of Havertz, Moussa Diaby and intermittently brilliant winger Leon Bailey inevitably fly the nest.

In Glasgow – past scene of their Champions League final defeat by that Zinedine Zidane goal – Diaby was influential throughout, while Bailey emerged from a high-quality bench to score the third in a comprehensive 3-1 win. Rangers were outclassed in all departments, as veteran playmaker Charles Aránguiz could have had a hat-trick: scoring once, having an acrobatic effort cleared off the line by Steven Davis and striking the bar with a whipped free-kick.

Returning to the evermore familiar backdrop of empty plastic seats, Manchester United adopted the Goliath role, to the David of Austria’s LASK Linz.

 

LASK (AUT)

UEFA ranking: 103

Domestic position: 1

Last season: third qualifying round (lost on away goals v Beşiktaş after 2-2 draw)

Previous UEFA Cup/Europa League best: round of 32 (1984/85, 1985/86)

Manchester United (ENG)

UEFA ranking: 10

Domestic position: 5

Last season: UEFA Champions League quarter-finals (lost 4-0 v Barcelona)

Previous UEFA Cup/Europa League best: winners (2016/17)

 

In fact, this was LASK’s first ever experience of springtime European football – their previous best was twice reaching the second round of the UEFA Cup in the mid-80s. The Austrian Bundesliga leaders (ahead of Red Bull Salzburg) had won seven of their eight European home games over the past two seasons, scoring 19 goals in the process.

Coached by Frenchman Valérien Ismaël (once, briefly, of Crystal Palace), they had certainly been impressive Europa League debutants. Topping Group D by winning all three home games and harvesting 13 points from European stalwarts Sporting, PSV and Rosenborg, they then overcame AZ Alkmaar last month.

Ominously, however, United were undefeated in their eight previous matches against Austrian clubs (W7 D1) and had yet to concede a goal on Austrian soil, while scoring seven. Against strong odds, LASK could have taken heart from the fairytale feats of compatriots Wolfsberg, who made waves in the group phase by taking points off both Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach. However, their summary dismissal by an increasingly coherent United side only served to highlight the chasm between the clubs’ relative resources.

Odion Ighalo’s ball-juggling showstopper was deserving of far more than the small smattering of applause it received, though it took until the final ten minutes for the floodgates to fully open. The visitors’ final flurry earned a 5-0 win, with Europa League specialist Mason Greenwood striking again.

Elsewhere, Marcel Koller’s Basel took on a Frankfurt side shaken by that drubbing at Leverkusen and were good value for a resounding 3-0 away win. Shakhtar earned an impressive win amid the echoes of Wolfsburg‘s empty Volkswagen Arena, partly thanks to an unsightly penalty miss by the hosts’ Wout Weghorst. The atmosphere was significantly more heated in the Turkish capital, where Copenhagen were defeated 1-0 by İstanbul Başakşehir, but only after an seemingly interminable VAR check delayed Edin Višća’s late penalty.

Then, after the final whistle blew across Europe, everything changed. With the future of football now shrouded in doubt, these ties were the last major games to take place until the coronavirus stormclouds finally pass.

Surely never have there been such strange circumstances to afflict football; ‘the people’s theatre’. For now the curtain descends, but when will it rise again?

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