There is a romanticism about European football. Our memories are of the glory nights and dramatic games; we forget that, for the most part, the opposition was made up of smaller clubs.
FC Vorska Poltava, from eastern Ukraine, fit that category. Nothing wrong with that at all, before you ask. It’s not a glamour tie in any sense of the phrase: it’s not glamorous nor is it a tie. And therein is the fundamental problem.
UEFA misses the point of their club competitions in a sporting sense. Fans want to see the big games, of course, but we don’t want that padded by four meaningless fixtures. One of the great strengths of European competitions all those years ago was the tingling of the spine when you drew a good side in the competition. You’d done your time in the opening rounds by beating the minnows, now it was the big boys.
So much, so similar to today yet the contrived nature of the group stage robs games of meaning. Three points isn’t the same as defending a one-goal advantage on a crap pitch in the middle of nowhere on a cold night when the character of players is tested. Three points and you move onto the next game with no intensity; it’s a league match, the antithesis of a knockout competition.
There are signs the format is dying on its’ arse. Green shoots or withering plants at the end of summer; whatever the case, the empty seats in stadia are not a good sign. You get exceptions such as the Mestalla last night; a wall of noise which eventually crumbled and buried Ronaldo’s tears in the debris.
But for the most part, group stage sellouts only refers to the clubs themselves and their craven desire to appease the payments.
Not that attendances mean much; it’s the sponsors’ money which matters, the advertisers who hold the power and demand the big teams in the latter stages. Seeding destroys competition in the same way league formats do. The suits miss the point that the reason fans love knockout tournaments is not knowing the draw in advance. A chance for their club to go all the way.
How can I sum up best what is wrong with the current set-up? Tonight Celtic meet Rosenborg in the Europa League group stage. Celtic beat Rosenborg 3 – 1 on aggregate in the Champions League second qualifying round in August, before losing to AEK Athens in the next round. How can both of them still be in Europe? No wonder the Europa League has such a poor reputation.
That’s my annual rant over. This is an organisation which thinks that we want international friendlies to have some meaning so they come up with a meaningless tournament. What they miss about international football is that we don’t want as much as often. We don’t want the continual interruptions to the first three months of the league season. We’ve had the World Cup, enjoyed it thank you very much, but let us have some time with our clubs, our loved ones. Then we’ll come back to you refreshed.
Which is in no way the opportunity for a contrived segue into the point of today’s post which is not a good old-fashioned bitch and moan, but a preview of tonight’s game. What should we expect?
I don’t know. Bernd Leno plays, so too Stephan Lichtsteiner. I’m guessing Lucas Torreira as well. As the for the rest of the team, your guess is as good as mine. A new central defensive pairing involving Rob Holding is one change I’d suggest.
Contrasts and Sharp Focus
In midfield, maybe Smith-Rowe will get a full debut? Welbeck up front, Aubameyang on the sidelines. A line-up which looks something like:
Leno; Lichtsteiner, Holding, Mustafi, Monreal; Torreira, Guendouzi; Mkhitaryan, Smith-Rowe, Welbeck; Lacazette
Good enough to win, we hope. We expect, as well. With a bench including Xhaka, Özil, Aubameyang, and Ramsey, we have enough in reserve and a coach who isn’t scared to make a change at half-time if things aren’t working.
Beyond that, a clean sheet would be nice. Something to show the defence is working. Lichtsteiner’s experienced head on the right will be an interesting contrast to Bellerin’s bombing forward. Will the Swiss international be able to command better defensive cover when he surges forward? Or will we play this as a more tactical match than the Premier League? Cautious not to concede, but on the front foot?
We shall see. Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.