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Why neither Man Utd nor Liverpool can afford to fall into the Europa League

20 Mar 2015

When Manchester United travel to Liverpool this Sunday, the game’s billing will firmly focus on how the result will affect the ‘rat race’ for a top-four position.

Despite a stuttering autumn, Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool side has accumulated 33 out of a possible 39 points since their last league defeat – a 3-0 drubbing at Old Trafford in December – and are showing the quality and hunger to return to next season’s Champions League.

As for United, the club is healing its wounds from last season, making stepping-stone progress towards consolidating a top-four position under Louis van Gaal. An impressive performance against Tottenham last Sunday showed nuances of a strong side developing, with the return of European nights at Old Trafford a necessity for the club.

But will that be European nights against Barcelona or Slovan Bratislava? To translate, the focus has been magnified so greatly on both clubs’ need for Champions League football, that the idea of a Europa League campaign commencing next season has been a discarded thought.

Although it would be devastating for either club to miss out on Champions League football, the effect of a Europa League campaign would exacerbate problems.

In 2009, it was decided that the UEFA Cup would be re-branded as the Europa League, in a bid to make the inferior European club competition more appealing.

The original format consisted of 40 clubs in eight groups of five where teams played each other once in the group stage, with the top three in each group commencing to the round of 32. However, under the re-brand, the competition expanded to 48 clubs in 12 groups of four where teams played each other home and away – the group stage entailed two more matchdays.

Given the obligatory post-match rest period of two days, the schedule of Europa League games on a Thursday night means Premier League sides must play on a Sunday (or Monday) that weekend. As the competition welcomes Europe’s unsifted clubs, jet-lagging midweek expeditions to locations venturing into Eastern Europe are probable.

As a result, league form is often compromised, because the physical demands of a Premier League fixture don’t dovetail with a midweek late-night flight home from the likes of Minsk. Also, Sunday kick-offs never quite prompt the same atmosphere of a Saturday game, meaning the attitude of the crowd and players is caught in a paradox.

The problem with falling into the Europa League is that it takes an incredible balancing act to secure a top-four Premier League finish while partaking in the competition.

As the graphic below outlines, only 1 of the 12 English clubs who have begun a season in the Europa League have managed to qualify for the Champions League in the same season. Even then, that one club is Manchester City, achieving the feat after spending £250m on players in the two seasons preceding the 2010/2011 campaign.

Tottenham currently find themselves in the Europa League’s orbit, whereby they never quite cut-it in the top-four race, yet always occupy a Europa League position. A study in December 2014 sampling 51 Premier League gameweeks discovered that Tottenham played on a Saturday on only 14 occasions – nine times fewer than any other team in the study.

An astonishing 31 games played by Tottenham were on a Sunday and it’s this divergence from England’s traditional 3pm kick-off time that lessens the enthusiasm for fans, which affects the atmosphere of games and, concurrently, performance levels of the players.

For Premier League clubs competing in the Europa League when they haven’t the previous season, a decrease – albeit marginal – in league performance also occurs. On average, Europa League newcomers’ domestic league points tally decreases by -2 on the previous year, and their domestic finishing position by -1.77 (so, 2). Success is defined on margins as Liverpool and Manchester United know, so such stats are gulp-worthy.

England’s equivalent to El Clasico won’t draw as much attention as the original edition this Sunday, yet the necessity of winning the top-four ‘rat race’ perhaps resonates deeper with United and Liverpool more than recent title challenges. The one thing both clubs really need to ensure, is that they avoid the vermin of the Europa League.

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