Although we’re all immersed in the excitement across Brazil at the 2014 FIFA World Cup; the UEFA Europa League is set to kick-off on Thursday.
Everton are not involved in any part of the qualification process after assuring their place in the group stages with a fifth-place finish and even though their European adventure doesn’t begin until the middle of September, it might be useful to assess their possible opponents.
Thursday’s ties span across European nations like the Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Norway, Iceland and many, many more. There are also British teams involved at this early stage with Scotland’s Aberdeen, Northern Ireland’s Linfield and Wales’ Bangor City and Aberystwyth Town as well as Irish teams like Derry City, Dundalk and Seamus Coleman’s former club Sligo Rovers.
Second round qualifying includes teams such as St. Johnstone, Motherwell, Modle and CFR Cluj – the latter three being involved in Champions League in the recent past. Further into qualification into the third qualifying round and play-off round will see teams such as Real Sociedad, Lyon, PSV, Hull City, Villarreal, Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan.
In one view those sides are of the quality that Everton would look to avoid until the latter stages of the competition, even perhaps all the way to Warsaw – where the final is held, the Polish National Stadium, which played host to the opening UEFA Euro 2012 game. Although in another view seeing the Toffees up against sides of the sort of stature as Real Sociedad, Lyon and Inter Milan would only add meaning to the word adventure with destinations leaving Evertonians’ mouths watering.
Those already in the group stage along with Everton, boast good European pedigree. Three-time winners and holders of this competition, Sevilla have assured their group stage place through league position like Everton but also winning this competition last year. Wolfsburg have good European experience in the recent past and are also into the group stage as well as Dynamo Kyiv. Old enemies in this competition, Fiorentina are another club already in the group stage and another tie against the Italians should the Blues get past the group stage, would be one for both travellers and neutrals; given the entertainment value of the last meeting between the two sides.
If you’re already licking your lips at the potential opponents from Europa League, don’t forget that teams will drop down from the Champions League who fail to win the play-off round ties to the group stage or teams who finish third in those groups. Teams such as Arsenal, Celtic, Atletico Bilbao, Bayern Leverkusen, Porto and Napoli are all in the Champions League qualification process and are all potential opponents should they fail in that competition.
The Europa League could benefit Everton in several ways depending on their plans for the tournament. If Roberto Martinez plans on not prioritising this competition then this could be a good platform to bring in youngsters that are on the cusp of the first team and give them some senior experience. However if the manager feels it’s a winnable competition then it provides an extra chance of gaining a trophy or getting to a final.
At the minute the Toffees’ ultimate goal is to finish in a Champions League spot in the league but if that happens, the squad doesn’t have much European experience collectively so therefore a good run in this competition will provide that much needed familiarity with European football.
European participation will always attract a better quality of player in the transfer market. In an offer to a player European football can be described as a stage where they can showcase their abilities. Furthermore, Everton’s involvement in this competition could force those controlling the chequebook into ‘pushing the boat out’ and seriously investing in the squad to manage the strenuous cohesion of domestic and Europe.
In preparation for the 2014/15 season it is clear whatever the Blues’ intentions are for this tournament, fresh faces are needed to make up the numbers because two games a week is what the squad face. Fans of the English Premier League will remember in the last two years both Stoke City and Swansea City have suffered in league position for progression in this European competition and it is fundamental that the Toffees do not replicate that sacrifice.