The Gatecrashers

first_imgLiverpool, with its confident dispatch of Villarreal, have crashed the Spanish party.Never before have two European finals in the same season been contested by clubs from only one country. It would have been a feat to underscore Spanish supremacy, the strength in depth that football fans, particularly those in thrall to the percussive English Premier League, don’t typically associate with a league in which the two leading clubs appear to occupy some astral plane. (Though in recent seasons Diego Simeone’s cussed Atletico side has gloried knocking in pulling them into the mud, knocking those haloes askew.)Impressive as Spanish teams are — able, as Atletico showed against Bayern Munich, to defend with resolve and vigour just as they are to attack with the adroit short passing and educated technique for which they are famous — we should be grateful to Liverpool. European competition shouldn’t be reduced to a domestic squabble. Until 2014, no two teams from the same city had reached the final of the European Cup or Champions League. It has now happened twice in three seasons. Milan — a city with two great clubs of its own — will host Real Madrid and their neighbours Atletico in the Champions League final on May 28 in a reprise of the final two years ago in Lisbon.To have to watch Sevilla chase their third successive Europa League win against Villarreal on May 18 would have been like watching the undercard to the main event, two lesser-known boxers from the same gym slugging it out before the big boys take to the ring. Instead, we now have two European finals to savour. One featuring two clubs that are anathema to each other: the glistening, preening Real Madrid, flaunting its trophies (this could be their 11th European Cup win, their closest challengers are AC Milan with seven) and establishment bona fides taking on their self-consciously ‘working class’ city rivals. It is a final that promises all the nervous energy, the claustrophobic strife, of a couple who have lived for too long with each other but cannot separate because they know no other way of life. The other final features teams that come from two distinctive, prideful cities; teams that are defined, marked out, like the cities they represent, by their passion.advertisementIndeed, the Europa League final might prove to be the more watchable, the more attractive.More importantly, Liverpool, with an exacting, exciting run to the final, beating Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund (the game at Anfield, a 4-3 win for Liverpool, is a strong contender for game of the season) and Villarreal, has breathed new life into the competition. In England, the Europa League, has been treated with a strange disdain. Or perhaps not so strange, given the insular self-regard of English football and the financial rewards for finishing mid-table in the Premier League. It is difficult to win the Europa League — with its onerous travel, it’s weird Thursday night scheduling, and curious mix of heavyweights in lean times and competent if unheralded teams from European outposts — and most Premier League teams seem to have concluded that affecting indifference is easier than having to face up to not being good enough. The decision to award the winner of the Europa League a place in the Champions League has given the former a fillip. Should Liverpool win it, and qualify for the Champions League despite likely finishing out of the top six in the league, that should give the likes of Manchester United pause.Sevilla, of course, has been treating the Europa with the seriousness of purpose it deserves for a decade now, winning it a record four times. Liverpool have won it thrice, and another win, a ninth major European trophy, would see Liverpool equal Barcelona and Milan’s European hauls. Only Real Madrid has won more. That European record is what has kept Liverpool fans warm at night during two decades that has seen their domestic record eclipsed by Manchester United. Sevilla is probably the better team than Liverpool, but finals are treacherous affairs as Atletico Madrid will attest. Atletico, up to now, has enjoyed a marginally better season than Real. They have, in the last two rounds at least, been better than Real Madrid against significantly better opposition. They have beaten Barcelona and Bayern as opposed to an overmatched Wolfsburg and a becalmed Manchester City. But they’ve also lost their last two Champions League ties to Real, the final in 2014 and last year’s two-legged quarter final. They have had two heartbreaking defeats in European Cup finals. Surely, it will be third time lucky. Surely?advertisementAs for Liverpool, winning against Sevilla would be the culmination of a wonderful campaign. Sevilla is on the verge of winning the Europa League for an unprecedented third time but it’s an opportunity afforded by failure in the Champions League, albeit in a tough group including Juventus and Manchester City. The parachuting of third-placed teams from the Champions League into the Europa knockout rounds contributes to the devaluing of what was once, as the UEFA Cup, a superb competition. It’s probably too late to go back to the old format of three separate European competitions, one for league champions, one for teams that finish high up in their domestic leagues, and one for cup winners. There is too much money and prestige concentrated in the Champions League, too many teams that demand a global audience of armchair supporters. But wouldn’t it be great to have two fine European tournaments? To have the Champions League open to only the top two from all the European leagues, including those of Spain, England, Germany, and Italy? To have better teams in the Europa League and more intense competition?Never before has talent and money coalesced to so few clubs at the very top of the European game. It’s why the Champions League will remain bloated, to give the very richest clubs the best opportunities to get even richer. It is to Atletico’s enormous credit that they have managed to muscle into this cartel. And it is to Liverpool’s credit that they have found the energy and the will to turn another humdrum season into a potentially excellent one and along the way reminded us that there’s romance and glory to be had outside the Champions League.last_img

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