They’ve rebadged it, you fool. The Europa League, Michel Platini would no doubt willfully drill into you, may have been theorised as a streamlined, glitzier and altogether better version of its former incarnation, the UEFA Cup, but in reality it remains largely just as detrimental and self-defeating as it was in its former, pre-2009 guise.
Perhaps that is its raison d’être, though; to safeguard the European elite and, let’s face it, UEFA’s biggest cash cows, by stifling the progress of any dangerous upstarts threatening to fill seats at the top table. To the point where you wonder if finishing third in a Champions League group instead of fourth, or finishing seventh in the Premier League instead of eighth, is actually rewarded or punished. The former in each scenario will invariably lead to gruelling excursions across the continent so far off the beaten track that only a club’s most intrepid supporters could be both bothered and wealthy enough to follow them there. The latter simply curtails that long and winding road once and for all.
As for the pot of gold at the end of rainbow, some would call it Champions League qualification, others would consider it primarily a route out of the Europa. It’s as if all of its competitors are trapped inside the most circuitous and painstaking of escape rooms, where only one can win freedom, the rest doomed to a televised act of toiling, not not to be missed every other Thursday on ITV4.
It is this sort of paradox that Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton side could feasibly be saddled with next term, should their revival under the Italian continue at its current pace for the rest of this campaign. In Ancelotti’s eight league games in charge since his mid-December appointment, he has earned 17 points. Match that rate of return for the remaining 12 matches of 2019-20 and Everton’s final total will be somewhere north of 60; enough for a Europa place in the last two years and surely again this time around. Ultimately, then, does the end justify the means?
Honestly, probably not. Not because Ancelotti, a man who still has a Europa League trophy on his bucket list, would not value Everton’s presence in the competition, or set them up to be a force to be reckoned with; of both these things, there can be no doubt under one of the world’s most esteemed managers. Rather, it’s the mental and physical toll, the churn of the Thursday-Sunday turnaround in games, the sense that it could detract from invaluable training and recuperation time for a promising side in its embryonic stage.
Everton’s previous two ventures into Europe’s unknown essentially lay many of the competition’s shortcomings bare. Having finished within a whisker of Champions League qualification in 2013-14 under Roberto Martínez, the Spaniard failed to marry the hope of a crack at the Europa with another assault on the top four the following year. Of course, Martínez’s issues at Everton ran far deeper than this, but it is telling that, in a season that served up an 11th-place finish, early domestic cup exits and a last 16 drubbing in Kiev, his team dropped 16 points in league games the Sunday after the Thursday before.
Then in 2017 under Ronald Koeman and Sam Allardyce, a truly awful Everton side would drop even more league points (19) after less Europa games than in 2014-15. You sense their abrupt group stage exit, galling as it was, would secretly have been welcomed by Allardyce in order to give full attention to his role as perennial firefighter. Koeman, meanwhile, treated the qualifying round tie with Slovakians Ružomberok as glorified pre-season friendlies, and saw fit to prepare for the extra load by stockpiling a top-heavy, undercooked squad until it reached saturation point.
None of these managers’ CVs hold a candle to Ancelotti’s, but there are still cautionary tales to be heeded here. Particularly if Everton take the final Europa spot, their season will start on July 23, with three rounds of two-legged qualifiers to navigate before even reaching the competition proper. Again, it leaves Ancelotti with the most undesirable of catch-22s. Especially given Manchester City’s two-year European ban opening up a Champions League spot for fifth place do you go full-throttle from now until May at chasing what just weeks ago was a pipe dream? Do you settle for the slightly reduced Europa campaign? Do you really contemplate whether you’d prefer to finish eighth than seventh, if indeed seventh still takes the final Europa place now?
You need only look further across the country for further recent examples of both its debilitating side-effect and the enmity shown towards the tournament, too. This is the competition that Gary Megson admitted, while managing Bolton, he was told by the club hierarchy to get out of to focus on Premier League survival. Or that Harry Redknapp repeatedly panned and described as being a ‘million miles’ from the Champions League during his spell at Tottenham. Or that Brendan Rodgers labelled a ‘long slog’ shortly after his appointment at Leicester.
Consider also how last season’s finalists, Chelsea and Arsenal, won just one of their last five league games each as the rigours of the latter stages became irrepressible. And, conversely, how the common denominator with Chelsea’s title triumph under Antonio Conte, Leicester’s 5000-1 miracle, and Liverpool’s return to the Champions League under Jürgen Klopp after a three-year absence is that they were all achieved without the simultaneous prodding of European football. In that regard, Wolves are patently the exception to the rule, as they make a decent stab at both the league and the Europa, in a season which will exceed 60 games should they reach the final.
Even financially, even with Everton’s reported loss of roughly £110 million last year, its monetary advantage represents a relative pittance in the inflated, disproportionate market that top-flight football now operates. Not including income from revenue and various other sources, this season’s Europa League winner stands to earn about £37 million from the competition. By contrast, Huddersfield Town were rewarded with almost £100 million for amassing just 16 points and propping up the Premier League table last season. It is an entirely different stratosphere with which the Champions League’s ugly sister just cannot compete.
It will be a case of risk and reward for Ancelotti and Everton should Thursday night lights await them next season. Is it worth risking their league campaign to send a team still in its infancy to visit every crevice of Europe’s lesser-spotted footballing hotbeds? Of course, every supporter craves a trophy, not least those who have been starved of them for 25 years, but when fourth place and a Europa League triumph yield the same reward, the former seems the likelier route into the Champions League for Everton, at least at this early stage in Ancelotti’s reign.
The calibre of manager now at the Goodison Park helm, Everton’s recent revival under him, the likelihood of a strengthened, battle-hardened squad come August and the state of flux pervading almost every Premier League club besides Liverpool should give Evertonians enough hope that a sustainable top four challenge next season is viable.
For now, though, it might be worth remembering that you can’t shoot for the moon with a double-edged sword.