‘Thursday nights, Channel 5’ went the refrain from travelling supporters soon after both Manchester clubs were sent spiraling into the Europa League earlier this season.
The giants of the English game, both competing for the right to be crowned Premier League champions this season were forced to face up to the embarrassment of being booted from feasting from the top table of European football and all its treats to feeding off the scraps thrown to them.
At least either Manchester United or Manchester City could win silverware this season though; both were installed as joint-favourites to contest the final in Bucharest later this season as soon as their participation in the Europa League was confirmed.
The Europa League has been beset by problems for some time. Belittled by welcoming failed Champions League entrants to the party at the fist knockout stage and proud owner of the longest, most ridiculous, convoluted structure to ever grace any professional footballing competition in the world, it is an easy target for mockery.
Throw into that the fact that by its very nature it misses out on most of the big names of European football, it may seem as though the Champions League’s ugly sister has little going for it.
Step forward Athletic Bilbao and the realisation that it is a competition of merit.
Marcelo Bielsa’s ruthlessly drilled side sent a shockwave through the Europa League and beyond with their performance at Old Trafford on Thursday as they harangued and harried a side that has made it to the final of the Champions League in three of the last four years. Their 3-2 win against the reigning Premier League champions was something to behold.
United’s performance was by no means vintage, and their defending on the continent in particular this season has been a shadow of the side that shipped just four goals in the entire Champions League tournament before their final humbling.
But United were only woeful in part because Bilbao made them look as such. Their pressing, relentless and at break-neck speed, forced the home side into errors they wouldn’t usually make.
With the ball at their feet they went for the jugular, going direct and at pace but never playing mindless passes. There was purpose and poise about their display last night.
“I don't think there's any doubt Bilbao were the better team,” a shocked Sir Alex Ferguson uttered after the game before pointing to Bilbao’s Basque identity and philosophy as to the reason for their strength.
It is a shame to think, were it not for United’s presence in the Europa League, such a magnificent side would never had the platform and exposure to show the astonished watching public what they could do.
The occasional showing late night on Sky Sports aside, Bilbao are only known to the few who go out of their way to seek evidence that what is written about them is true.
And it is not just Bielsa’s men who have benefitted from the exposure given to them especially in this country by the pied piper effect of European giants.
Ajax, led by the wonderfully talented Christian Eriksen gave United a real fright in the last leg while Porto put up a decent fight against City before succumbing to their opponents might.
The Portuguese club have had numerous players linked with the Premier League but before their two ties against City they were just names on a piece of paper, now supporters had the chance and crucially the inclination to run the rule over their varying quality.
Elsewhere Udinese and Atletico Madrid, both outstanding sides with plenty to offer are still in the competition and have plenty to offer, while Rubin Kazan taught Spurs a lesson in how to keep the ball when they travelled to north London when Harry Redknapp’s men were at the peak of their powers.
Scratch away at the surface and move past the fact that the leading lights aren’t there to attract viewers like moths to a flame, the Europa League, contrary to popular belief, has quality. Much like the Carling Cup it is undergoing a resurgence in popularity and, whisper it quietly, credibility.
Five million viewers who tuned in to watch Bilbao’s trip to Old Trafford. By comparison Arsenal’s heroic defeat in the Champions League on Wednesday evening pulled in just over six million. For competitions meant to be miles apart it would appear interest in both is closer than it seems.
Of course Manchester United’s participation will always bring numbers but this wasn’t a one man show, plenty of viewers tuned in to find out about more the team making waves in Spain.
More than just numbers there was a genuine buzz about last night’s game. The build up painted the travelling Bilbao support as frantic and their beloved team as fast and furious. It is hard to think of a more eagerly anticipated, and more enjoyable, game in the Europa League.
Neither of these clubs will be in the competition next year. But just by being there, and in United's case being beaten, they have provided a platform and access to supports who felt there was no point to the Europa League.
Before, it was the last resting place of a over-the-hill band, playing their last dying chord. Now it is the place to check out the next big thing. Fans won over by Napoli and their refreshing brand of football in the Champions League would have got in on the ground floor if they had watched them play Liverpool in the Europa League last season.
Both Manchester clubs have already learned winning the Europa League is no walk in the park. But more importantly their participation has sparked an interest in a competition that had previously held little interest. Maybe Thursday nights on Channel Five are not such a bad place to be overall.
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