If you know someone who is a Spurs fan – specifically an American one – then you know the only thing they disdain more than Arsenal is non-league matches.
While some fans unfortunately see cup matches as an unnecessary burden, they specifically target the Europa League as for some reason they deem a Thursday-Sunday turnaround significantly worse than the Wednesday-Saturday turnaround that you would have if you were in the Champions League. Many fans unfortunately see these games as more of a distraction and would rather do away with them so their team can concentrate on securing a top four finish and Champions League football.
After falling out of the Champions League group stage, Spurs now join Manchester United in this exact situation. The top six in the Premier League is closer than ever. Just 10 points separate the leaders Chelsea with 6th place Manchester United. Five points separate second through sixth place.
Personally, I believe that Chelsea will end up pulling away and winning the league. That still leaves five teams within five points vying it out for three places. Factor in that Liverpool don’t have any European matches either and they look pretty good for second place. For the sake of this article we’ll assume Liverpool finish second leaving Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Manchester United battling it out for third and fourth. In a race that tight any slight edge you can get could be the difference between the Champions League and the Europa League.
Therefore, it’s not a stretch to think that punting away the Europa League, and doing away with those midweek commitments, would be a big incentive to these clubs.
Not so fast. That’s exactly what UEFA doesn’t want, which is why they recently awarded the winner of the Europa League a spot in the Champions League the following season. They want teams to take the Europa League seriously.
Nevertheless, winning the Europa League isn’t easy, even if that’s all you’re playing for. Last season, Liverpool knew they weren’t going to crack the top of the league, and therefore devoted all their efforts to the Europa League. They finished as runners up and were rewarded with zero European competition this season. That’s a lot of effort for no reward.
Liverpool’s 2015/16 campaign may seem like further incentive to punt away the Europa League. After all, that’s a lot of work for no reward. It seems like it’s simply better to get rid of the distraction of midweek games and travel early on to focus soley on finishing at least fourth to qualify for the Champions League next season.
This is where things get tricky. As it turns out, with a race as tight as the one in the Premier League this year, fourth place may not be good enough to qualify for the Champions League this year.
You read that right.
“But I thought they changed that rule” shouts the Spurs fan – referencing the 2012 situation where Spurs finished fourth only to see their spot in the Champions League taken by sixth place Chelsea who won the competition.
Following the 2012 catastrophe, they did in fact change the rule, declaring that the Champions League winner be an extra spot that isn’t counter against a countries total allocation of Champions League teams. This way no country could have more than five countries represented in the Champions League.
A few years later UEFA declared that the winner of the Europa League would earn a spot in the Champions League group stage but the fine print on that gets a lot more interesting. It turns out, the winner of the Europa League only goes to the group stage if only three (or fewer) other teams from their country have qualified for the group stage of the competition.
What the fine print also said was that no more than five teams from one country can qualify from one country.
What does all that mean?
Simple. Should Arsenal or Manchester City win the Champions League and finish inside the top four in the Premier League, no one has anything to worry about. But if Arsenal or City win the Champions League and finish outside the top four, while either Tottenham or Manchester United both win the Europa League and finish outside the top four, then the Europa League winner would go to the Champions League qualifying rounds while the fourth place Premier League team would automatically be relegated to the Europa League.
This entire scenario seems unlikely, but think about this way. Manchester City reached the semifinals of the Champions League last year. This year they’ve added more talent and an overrated, but very good manager. Is it unrealistic to see them winning the Champions League?
Meanwhile both Tottenham and Manchester United can easily be considered to be among the four favorites to win the the Europa League, should they take it seriously. While it’s unlikely, there is still much better than a nonzero chance that this scenario plays out.
With this scenario being on the cards as long as City and Arsenal are alive in the Champions League Spurs and United must take the Europa League seriously. Imagine how awful it would be for Spurs to punt the competition and finish fourth, only to see fifth and sixth place City and United win both European Cups.
I don’t think either team wants to find out and that’s why, for now, both teams need to take Europe’s secondary competition seriously.