It is easy to look at the Europa League, and in particular AC Milan’s participation in it, and with a shrug of the shoulders say it is just the Europa League.
The continent’s second-string competition may have its critics, and the amount of games and travel is far from ideal but, to put it bluntly, it is all they have got. I Rossoneri have been incapable of qualifying for the Champions League for far too long now and are in the Europa only by the skin of their teeth. Beggars cannot be choosers. But is it all that bad?
The Journey back to Greatness
The Europa League is not as second rate as the picture often painted of it makes out. Recent winners include Manchester United, Chelsea and Atlético Madrid. AC Milan have no right to think they are operating on a higher level than any of those clubs. It also gives the winners a ticket to the Champions League, which in the short term, may be an easier route than via Serie A.
Finally, a club of AC Milan’s stature, with its history, needs to be in European competition. No matter what that competition is. It needs to be in the footballing spotlight. Besides everything else, a run in the Europa League could very well be the launch pad back to greatness.
The Task Ahead
If this is going to be a successful campaign, then the other teams in group F really should not offer too great a threat. Olympiacos will perhaps pose the greatest threat. They came through against Premier League Burnley in the play-offs and have had an impressive start in their domestic league. Real Betis should not be taken too lightly, but on paper they pose little that should overly worry Gattuso. Dudelange are the first Luxembourg club to progress to this stage of a European competition. Stepping out into the San Siro will very likely be the highlight of many of their players’ careers. That could go both ways.
The Tournament Proper
If, as expected, Milan finish in the top two spots, tougher tests lay ahead. 8 teams will be parachuted in from the Champions League to join, in all likelihood, the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Sevilla and Bayer Leverkusen. Winning the Europa League is no easy task. There will be a lot of games, and many of those will be against tough, often competition hardened teams. Regardless of the strength or otherwise of the Milan squad, they have not had European competition for long enough that it could be a problem.
That said, they are still fourth favourites in the eyes of most bookmakers, with the English pair Chelsea and Arsenal taking the top two berths. In the EPL, Chelsea are defying all expectations in Sari’s first season in the role, and are third favourites to lift the title, behind runaway favourites Man City and Liverpool. It will be interesting to see whether in the new year and the league is out of reach, the ex-Napoli man focusses all his efforts on Europe.
As shown, there are merits to the Europa League. It is worth winning, and worth competing in. The issue is, at what cost? Will fans be happy if they give it a go, come up short, and as a consequence of their efforts once again fail to make an impact in Serie A? I suspect not.
But the thought of going out of Europe’s second tier tournament with a whimper in an effort to try to get back in the top reaches of their domestic league just feels wrong. Very soon, there could be a third European club competition, paving a way for even more clubs to take on the continent’s elite – and not so elite. Inter-country tournaments are the way UEFA seem to be heading, with the absence of any European League.
AC Milan need to be at the forefront of that movement. In years to come, let’s hope that the last few years will be seen as a blip, as opposed to the start of new normal. If that is the case, Europa League glory could very well be the catalyst.