English clubs must end Europa League snobbery

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Football News

If 2011-12 has proved anything, it's the fact that English teams have, by and large, been exposed by superior continental opposition this term.

Apart from Chelsea's Champions League heroics - which have carried them all the way to next month's showpiece final against Bayern Munich - after overcoming holders Barcelona at Camp Nou earlier this week, Premier League clubs have been a massive flop in Europe this year.

Not only were Manchester United dumped from the Champions League by the combined might of Basel and Benfica, neither they, nor local rivals Manchester City - whose first appearance in Europe's top tier competition in the current format also ended prematurely at the group stages - found the going much easier in the Europa League.

Arsenal made the lightest work of their group, becoming the first English side to qualify for the knock-out stages this year, but were swiftly beaten by AC Milan in the last-16, ending their hopes of Champions League success for another season.

The Europa League is even more damning. Of this year's early entrants, only Stoke City progressed through the group stages, with Tottenham, Fulham, and Birmingham City, failing to reach the knock-out round of 32; the point where United, City and the other third place Champions League group stage finishers entered the competition.

Even then, both of the Premier League's leading clubs were out of Europe completely by mid-March, having lost their respective last-16 ties to Athletic Bilbao and Sporting Lisbon. The question is, why?

In truth, I'm not convinced that English clubs actually take the Europa League seriously at all. Their early exits are a result of a lack of respect for either the tournament as a whole, or the rival clubs competing in it.

Spurs boss Harry Redknapp made no secret of his intentions to use this year's European adventure as an opportunity to give his fringe players more game time, and valuable experience to younger players trying to make the first-team grade at White Hart Lane.

Tottenham's priority would remain the domestic campaign, whereby Redknapp and Co. would try and deliver a return to the Champions League via a top-four finish in the Premier League. The result - Europa League exit at the group stages.

Meanwhile, Birmingham - who qualified via their Carling Cup final success over Arsenal in 2011 - had been relegated from England's top-flight the same year, and so wanted to retain their focus on a bid for promotion back from the Championship at the first time of asking.

Fulham, to their credit, tried to juggle their busy domestic and European schedule in an attempt to rediscover the success that carried them all the way to the Europa League final back in 2010. Likewise, Stoke - knocked out by Valencia in the last-32 - also gave their best efforts, but at the expense of their domestic form in the Premier League.

The snobbery towards the Europa League in this country seems to stem not from England's mid-table clubs, but ones in the higher echelons of the Premier League, who feel they have more important challenges to focus on.

Certainly the two Manchester clubs did not seem to take the competition seriously, once they had negotiated their initial ties against glamour opponents in Ajax and Porto. After the Champions League was out of the way, it was clear that the overriding priority was the battle for the English title.

Chelsea now remain the only English interest in Europe this season, with their dogged defensive displays, and stubborn ability to continue defying the odds, seemingly encapsulating the whole nation.

After watching the outcome of last night's Europa League semi-final fixtures, which will see an all-Spanish final to be contested between the impressive Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid, a part of me thinks that there is a lesson to be learned from our La Liga counterparts.

Whether or not any of the outcast English clubs are left regretting their decision not to take Europe's second-tier competition more seriously, I'm not sure. But, while domination of the Europa League may not be a reliable yardstick for the quality of either an individual club, or a collective country, it's a tournament that Premier League sides should not continue to take for granted.

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