No more Europa?

Apparently, there are talks going on about whether to scrap the Europa League and expand the Champions League. It’s one of the worst ideas UEFA has managed to come up with yet, and that’s saying something.

Their reasoning is that Europa doesn’t attract the same kinds of crowds and some clubs don’t try as hard for it as they do for the Champions League. That is a problem, but this is still not a good plan.

Five Reasons Why It’s a Terrible Idea

1) Right now, the Champions League is competitive while still allowing for a wide variety of teams and nations to participate. Expanding it would take away that competitive edge and add either a bunch of dead weight in earlier rounds that people still wouldn’t watch or force teams to play even more games. More games isn’t just a problem when it comes to player injury – it would also exacerbate the problems with competitiveness that is already widespread in major European leagues. Only the richest teams would have the depth necessary to routinely play a game every three days, and everyone else would see their form in both competitions suffer as a result.

2) As the season draws to a close, part of the excitement is Champions League qualification. Even in the top three leagues, which get four representatives, there are more good teams than there are Champions League spots, and the potential rewards for participating make the race every bit as heated as the title race or relegation. If it is expanded to more teams, that competitive edge will wear off.

3) The Champions League is exciting right now because there’s always the potential for an upset. Even things that seem like they should be straightforward aren’t always so – just this season, we’ve seen a lot of things that most people never would have predicted. Barcelona lost to Celtic. City lost to Ajax. The reason for that is that if you don’t come from a strong league/place high enough in your league to begin with, you have to go through playoffs to get into the group stage. Expand it, and there will be fewer upsets and less intrigue.

4) There’s something to be said for what Europa offers: the chance for smaller but still talented clubs to gain international recognition. Once you reach the knock out rounds of Europa it gets quite competitive and entertaining. The Europa Leagues gives teams like Atlético Madrid – who have talent and drive but not the financial resources to really challenge for the Champions League title – something else to aim for, similar to domestic cups. It’s also good practice for the Champions League, which most clubs in Europa can reasonably aspire to.

5) The Europa League is an excellent way to judge league depth. Look at Spain: a lot of people dismiss La Liga as a boring, two-team league. However, if that’s all they were, Spanish teams wouldn’t also be dominating Europa. Expand the Champions League, and any understanding of any league beyond the title contenders would go out the window.

So how do you fix it?

1) Give out Champions League spots for performance in Europa. Both finalists should automatically get a berth, and if you’re really serious about it, give the Europa winner a place in the first pot, whatever their coefficient is. That would make it a lot more attractive.

2) Give out more money for participation. That would, at the moment, probably mean siphoning a little money away from the Champions League, but that’s okay. I’m not talking about the same kind of money, just enough that there’s some incentive.

3) Make it smaller. 12 groups is just too many, and letting everyone who doesn’t get through to the Champions League in is a bit ridiculous. I don’t mind letting them parachute down, but make them work for it. For example, the groups could be reduced to 8, and then the 4 worst runners up could have to play off against the 4 best third-placed CL teams. 1 leg, at home to the Europa runner up. If the CL reject gets through, they’ll actually deserve it.

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The Big Two vs. the Big Clubs

So outside Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s probably fair to say that the four biggest and most successful clubs in Spain are Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla, and Valencia.

Athletic, along with Barcelona and Madrid, have spent every season since the league started in 1929 in the first division. Valencia have spent 78, Atlético 76, and Sevilla 69.

Collectively, these four have won the league 24 times of the 28 times neither Real Madrid nor Barcelona won it. They’ve come in runners up 25 of the 38 times neither Madrid nor Barcelona did. They make up 3-6 in the table of total games won through their history in the league, despite Sevilla having spent 9 less seasons in the first division than Espanyol.

Their ranks include the only Spanish teams outside of the big two to ever make it to the UCL final and to win the UEFA Cup/Europa League.

These are hugely, hugely dominant teams. Yes, Madrid and Barcelona tend to overshadow them, but these are four remarkably consistent clubs with real staying power. 

So how have they done against the big two lately?

Well, it’s kind of an interesting story.
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Tracking Europe: La Liga, Matchday 12

Something pretty catastrophic would have to happen for Barcelona and Real Madrid to fail to qualify for the UCL, but what about the other two spots? The competition for them is always heated, and this year, it doesn’t look like one of them will automatically go to Valencia.

So, throughout the season, I’m going to be tracking the five most likely contenders for those UCL spots, and recapping how their prospects look. Click through for matchday 11.

Note: This is the third post in a series. The first post detailing the teams I think are the most likely contenders can be found here.

Atlético Madrid

Result: Win (Granada 0-1 Atlético Madrid)
Change in position: None (2)

Atlético did end up winning this, but they weren’t very convincing, and I kind of felt like Granada might have deserved something out of this. They pressed forward throughout the game and actually had more possession, and once Atlético had a man sent off, it felt like they were just trying to hold on.

So on one hand, it’s tempting to predict an Atlético slump. On the other, though, it’s important to acknowledge that – as I said last week – these are the wins they need. You can’t go big every week, and all those 1-0 or 2-1 victories that you grind out over the course of the season despite not being particularly impressive on the day can end up being vital at the end.

They remain three points behind Barcelona and five ahead of Real Madrid.

Valencia CF

Result: Win (Valencia 2-1 Espanyol)
Change in position: 9 to 8 (will remain 9 if Rayo win tomorrow)

This was not a pretty game or a pretty win.

The ref handed out 14 yellows and 2 reds, many of which seemed unnecessary, and Valencia won in the 89′ when Soldado converted a controversial penalty call that led to two Espanyol players being sent off – one with a second yellow for the handball, and the other for dissent. Nobody looked very good, and Valencia really should have done better against an Espanyol side that’s been quite poor this season.

But they did win, and they did get the three points, and right now, points are more of Valencia’s problem than form is.

They current sit two points off Champions League qualification.

Sevilla

Result: Win (Sevilla 5-1 Real Betis)
Change in position: 10 to 7 (will be 8 if Rayo win tomorrow)

Well then.

This was just a slaughter. Betis were valiant, especially in the second half, but Sevilla just controlled the game. They scored in the first minute following an error from the keeper, and after that they were hungry and ruthless. Their passing was crisp, they got themselves out of tricky situations, and for once, they didn’t fall down when it came to finishing.

They were less impressive in the second half, but they still created chances and contained Betis, and when you’re 4-0 up at half time, that’s okay.

This was a very, very impressive display from Sevilla. It was nice to see the team that looked so promising at the start of the season again, especially against an opponent as strong as Betis (albeit a Betis coming off a rough couple weeks).

Sevilla sit two points off Champions League qualification.

Málaga

Result: Osasuna 0-0 Málaga
Change in position: None (5)

The alarm bells are definitely ringing. This was not good from Málaga. It’s not surprising, either, unfortunately.

Osasuna are very, very poor this season, and even away, Málaga should have been able to manage a win. They didn’t. In fact, they probably should have lost – Osasuna had a goal wrongly disallowed and were better overall.

As I said, it’s not surprising – Málaga don’t have enough depth, and I think their run of outstanding, logic-defying form is really coming to an end. I don’t expect them to have trouble staying up, but even a Europa spot at this point could be difficult.

They currently sit a point off CL qualification.

Levante

Result: Win (Deportivo La Coruña 0-2 Levante)
Change in position: 6 to 4

Like Málaga, Levante have clear weaknesses. Unlike Málaga, they keep plugging away anyway.

There was an element of luck in their win: Depor’s CBs both had to be substituted because of injury in the first 15 minutes of the game, and it definitely hurt their defense. They also had their keeper sent off after all their substitutions had been made, although their makeshift keeper didn’t end up being the deciding factor in the game.

However, a lot of this win was just what we’ve come to expect from Levante. They dug in their heels. Depor have more than double the possession and shots that Levante did, but ultimately, it didn’t matter.

Levante are currently 4th in the table.

Round Up

All the prospective contenders aside from Málaga got wins this week, and as I said last time, most were not playing particularly challenging teams. Still, these are important wins to get, and Sevilla in particular looked quite promising.

Looking Ahead

Next week will be dramatic and significant when it comes to Champions League qualification, since most of our contenders play each other and Levante play Barcelona.

Atlético Madrid v. Sevilla

This would be the game of the weekend if the weekend didn’t have several other great matches.

Atlético have been a strong side all season and are a force to be reckoned with, especially at home, but they looked less impressive this week and have a midweek game in Europa. Sevilla, on the other hand, have been inconsistent but are coming off a great win in the Sevilla derby, and will have a full week of rest.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sevilla manage to win this one.

Málaga v. Valencia

Both Málaga and Valencia have midweek games, but Valencia, who play Bayern Munich at home on Tuesday, will have a day of rest on Málaga, who go away to Zenit St. Petersburg. Based on two teams’ run of form, Valencia will probably manage to win this.

Levante v. Barcelona

Given the fight Levante put up against Madrid last weekend, Barcelona will be happy to have a real back line again – assuming neither Pique nor Puyol get injured midweek, that is.

This could be interesting, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Barcelona struggle here.

Here ends the round 12 recap. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next time. You can find round 11 here, and round 10 can be found here.

Messi & Ronaldo Stats

With the Ballon d’Or coming up, fans of both players have become increasingly nasty (and maybe even a little crazy) about how terrible the other player is and why their favorite player deserves the prize so much more then the other one.

As often happens with these sorts of debates, there are a lot of “facts” being tossed around that – surprise, surprise – aren’t actually true.

So here’s my attempt to start to set the record straight.

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Tracking Europe: La Liga, Matchday 11

Something pretty catastrophic would have to happen for Barcelona and Real Madrid to fail to qualify for the UCL, but what about the other two spots? The competition for them is always heated, and this year, it doesn’t look like one of them will automatically go to Valencia.

So, throughout the season, I’m going to be tracking the five most likely contenders for those UCL spots, and recapping how their prospects look. Click through for matchday 11.

Note: This is the third post in a series. The first post detailing the teams I think are the most likely contenders can be found here.

Continue reading