In the wake of Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 loss to Monaco yesterday that dumped them unceremoniously out of the Champions League, Spurs fan anger on social media has been more or less two pronged. Fans were justifiably upset at the level of performance that led to Spurs playing a number of reserves with an eye towards Chelsea this weekend, and it resulted in one of their worst matches of the season. But many fans were equally distraught about the possibility of Spurs now parachuting into the Europa League.
Tottenham fan opinion on the Europa League is, to put it mildly, split. Some are eager to see Spurs against European competition, even if it isn’t top level European competition, and relish watching Spurs play in far-flung locales. But many, and dare I say even a plurality, view Europa as at best a distraction and at worst a competition that harms Spurs’ ability to effectively compete in the Premier League.
Spurs have one final Champions League match on December 7 against CSKA Moscow at Wembley Stadium, and they need a point against the Russian champions to ensure that they land in the knock-out stages of the Europa League. A loss, however, and they crash out of Europe altogether. That, according to many fans, isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Some have even suggested that Spurs should roll out the U21s against CSKA and tank the match in order to avoid Europa entirely.
I’d argue that this is wrong. As much as it smarts to drop down to Europe’s second tier, there are still plenty of good reasons to not only take the Europa League seriously, but to fully embrace the competition and make a serious run for the title.
It’s still glorious!
The Europa League has significantly less of the luster that it’s big brother has, but it’s still a prestigious European competition, and the winners are usually not slouches. Just ask Sevilla: they had virtually no shot of qualifying for the Champions League the past few seasons in a league that contains Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid, and they won the Europa League three consecutive times. Think Sevilla fans would trade those trophies in?
The home/away format makes Europa more predictable than the FA Cup, and it has a better prize: Champions League qualification. It’s silverware worth pursuing.
It’s another path to the Champions League.
This argument is kind of a litmus test as to how you feel about Spurs this season overall. If you think, as some do, that Spurs are likely to NOT finish in a Champions League position by the end of the Premier League season based on current form, then the Europa League is a lottery ticket into the competition. In this case, why not go for it?
However, the reverse is not necessarily true. If Spurs bail on the Europa League, it does not necessarily make it any more likely that they will parlay that into a top four finish. Bailing on Europa is like taking that lottery ticket and tearing it in half before the balls get drawn. Sure, you might not have won, but you also gave up your chance.
There is a legitimate argument to be made that continued participation in Europa would hinder Spurs’ chances of a top four finish, but this wouldn’t be any different than if Spurs had stayed in the Champions League. Besides, the best way to learn how to deal with participating in two major competitions... is to participate in two major competitions.
Besides, by entering the competition in the knock-out stages they have avoided the group stages, arguably the most annoying and draining of the entire competition. If you’re going to only play in half of Europa, make sure it’s the interesting half.
It’s especially winnable this year.
In years past there have been a number of great teams that for whatever reason had off years in their domestic league and dropped into the Europa League. Take Dortmund last season, for example: that was a clear Champions League-caliber squad that Spurs had the misfortune of running into. That doesn’t appear to be the case this year. While there are still two matches left in the group stages, the best teams left that look likely to advance are Roma, Villarreal, Manchester United, Schalke, and Southampton. All of them are decent sides, but none of them are exceptionally great and all look like teams Tottenham can beat on any given day.
As a top six Premier League side, Spurs are probably the best of the teams likely to crash out of the Champions League, making them immediately one of the favorites to win the competition, if they take it seriously.
The Europa League knock-out rounds don’t start until February, meaning Spurs have time to get through the busy holiday Premier League stretch and get some of their injured players healthy before they have a go. While you never take the competition for granted, this appears to be one of the better opportunities for a club like Tottenham to win it.
We haven’t earned the right to dismiss it.
This is perhaps the argument against Europa that irritates me the most, even if it is the most understandable from a fan perspective. There’s a not insignificant percentage of Tottenham’s fanbase that considers the Europa league “beneath the club.” These are the fans that advocate tanking the CSKA match so that Spurs drop entirely out of Europe. I can understand this opinion; in fact I even joked about it yesterday on Twitter.
Good news, though: we can still lose to CSKA and miss the Europa League!— Dustin Menno (@dustingm) November 22, 2016
But on reflection, this reaction is knee-jerk and reductive. If you think Spurs fans are upset now, how do you think they would react to phoning in a Champions League match at Wembley Stadium in front of (presumably) 85k fans? Even if you think that dropping out of Europe would help Spurs’ league ambitions, to believe that Tottenham Hotspur are beneath competing in the Europa League is to presuppose that the competition isn’t worth Spurs’ time.
Considering Tottenham’s excellent track record in the Europa League the past six seasons, there doesn’t appear to be much behind that. Bailing on the Europa League out of a misguided belief that we’re too good for the competition would be the height of hubris. Spurs haven’t yet earned that right. If you want to prove that Spurs are too good for the Europa League, the best possible way to make that assertion stick is to win it.
Mauricio Pochettino doesn’t seem like the kind of manager who’s going to hand-wave away an opportunity to participate in the Europa League. Of course, it’s possible that despite Spurs’ best effort the team could lose to CSKA and crash out of European competition altogether. If nothing else, that would feel like a perfectly reasonable end to Tottenham’s disastrous Champions League adventure.
The other counterpoint is that Sevilla is currently second in their Champions League group, three points above Lyon. However, if they lose to Lyon on December 6 by more than two goals then they parachute into the Europa League as well. And if that happens, well, you might as well just give them the trophy, because who would bet against them now?