Eyes on the Prize

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 29th 2014)

Pared Down

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Hull City paid the price for taking the Europa League lightly. KSC Lokeren progressed to the group stage on away goals, leaving England with just two representatives in the Europa League this season – the one where it really matters. This seasonʼs winners qualify for the Championʼs League. Tottenham Hotspur and Everton are Englandʼs only representatives in the Europa League this season.

Mauricio Pochettinoʼs Spurs team will play Turkeyʼs Beşiktaş, whose striking prowess was bolstered by the capture of Senegalese international Demba Ba in the summer. Belgradeʼs Partizan dropped down from the Championʼs League qualifying stage, but only had the chance to play in the top competition because Serbian champions Red Star were banned after falling foul of Financial Fair Play obligations by failing to pay their debts. Greek outfit Asteras Tripoli completed Group C.

Meanwhile, Roberto Martínezʼ Everton will play Russiaʼs FC Krasnodar, Germanyʼs VfL Wolfsburg and Franceʼs LOSC Lille in Group H. The French team, boasting last seasonʼs record breaking goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, were beaten by Porto for a place in the Championʼs League group stage.

Pick of the Rest

Defending Europa League winners Sevilla will play Croatiaʼs HNK Rijeka in Group H along with Belgiumʼs Standard de Liège and Rotterdamʼs top team Feyenord. Following Pochettinoʼs departure to Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton lured Feyenordʼs manager Ronald Koeman to St. Maryʼs Stadium. The vacancy at the de Kuip Stadium was filled by Fredericus Rutten. Unai Emery Etxegoien will expect the Andalusian club to dominate Group G despite losing captain Federico Fazio to Spurs.

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Villarreal is the only other Spanish team to make the group stage. They will expect to progress from Group A. Germanyʼs Borussia Mönchengladbach along with Cypriots Apollon Limassol and Swiss outfit FC Zürich complete the group. French outfit Saint-Étienne and Ukrainians Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk will expect to confirm Azerbaijanʼs Qarabağ Ağdam FK as Group Fʼs whipping boys while Internazionale di Milano complete the group.

 

Interʼs Vice-President and former on-pitch icon Javier Zanetti welcomed the draw, but assured us that Inter would not take the tournament lightly. Group K consists of Portuguese club EA Guincamp, Belarusʼ Dinamo Minsk, Salonikaʼs finest PAOK and Fiorentina, still boasting the talents of Colombiaʼs coveted winger Juan Guillermo Cuadrado Bello. Fiorentinaʼs CEO Sandro Mencucci told us, “He [Cuadrado] is one of the best players in the world”. The Viola do not want to sell him and Mencucci refused to put a figure on Cuadradoʼs value.

Controversy

Italyʼs final representative is controversial. Torino got the nod, although Parma have a right to feel aggrieved at being denied their place due to a financial infraction over taxes that they had not been informed of in time to meet the deadline – an utterly absurd situation. Despite the sympathy of Italian courts the sanction against Parma stood and Torino took their plaCIMG9125ce.

Torino could have qualified in their own right if Alessio Cerci had not missed a penalty against Fiorentina at Florenceʼs Artemio Franchi Stadium on the last day of the Serie A season. Cerciʼs tears showed what it meant to him, but the Granata were reprieved by Parmaʼs fate. Torino will face Belgians Club Brugge and the Scandinavian challenge of FC København and HJK Helsinki.

Celticʼs heroic recent performances in the Championʼs League particularly against Barçelona won the Glaswegian club deserved plaudits, but that goodwill was dissipated after a 6-1 thrashing by Polandʼs Legia Warszawa was turned into a 4-4 draw that allowed Celtic through on away goals after a technicality that had no bearing on the result. A Legia player had a three match ban – he actually served it, but the paperwork was defective. UEFA overturned the result, costing Legia their win and the possibility of earning in the Championʼs League. Legia was dumped out of the Championʼs League, allowing a shambles of a Celtic team another chance, which they failed to take. Sloveniaʼs Maribor beat them in Scotland to progress. Celtic and Legia both qualified for the group stage of the Europa League, but the draw kept them apart.

Austrian club FC Salzburg, little known Romanian outfit FC Astra from Giurgi, and Croatiaʼs Dinamo Zagreb provide the opposition for Celtic in Group D. Meanwhile, Ukraineʼs Metalist Kharkiv, Hull Cityʼs Belgian conquerors KSC Lokeren and Turkish outfit Trabzonspor are Legiaʼs opponents in Group L. The Europa League Final will be held in Warsaw this year.

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Disrespect?

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 29th 2014)

Poor Relation offered Riches

The Europa League is still seen as the poor relation of the Championʼs League. To some clubs it is seen as a distraction – at best a poor consolation for missing out on the Championʼs League. Last season when asked by us what Chelseaʼs objectives for the season were José Mourinho quipped, “to not qualify for the Europa League”. He then expressed satisfaction that the aim had been achieved.

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Spain and Italy among others take the Europa League more seriously. Few can forget the drama provided last season. Stéphane MʼBiaʼs last gasp winner at Mestalla took Sevilla to the final in Turin where Béla Guttmannʼs ghost toyed with poor Benfica again. Unai Emery Etxegoienʼs Sevilla triumphed on penalties after a bore drawn in Turin. Nevertheless the emotion and drama of the Europa League at least matched the Championʼs League. Still itʼs not enough. This year the winners will join the Championʼs League at the very least at the final qualifying stage for the group phase.

Distraction?

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“If we were to get to Europe it would be a good European tour and I think thatʼs one of them where obviously we wouldnʼt go into the competition expecting to win it, but it would be a good few weekends out for the fans”, Hull Cityʼs captain Curtis Davies said after reaching the FA Cup final last April. They qualified. Only Belgian outfit KSC Lokeren stood between them and a European tour.

Davies promised that unlike some English teams previously Hull City cared about the Europa League and would take it seriously. Their Egyptian winger Ahmed Elmohamady backed him up. Davies insisted that the Europa League is not a distraction.

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“I wouldnʼt say so because when I was at Birmingham and we were in the Championship and in the Championship you play 46 games, so obviously we played 46 games and we played 8 games in the Europa League and then we got to the play-off semi-final, so it was no distraction for us”, Davies told us. “It didnʼt take away from us. Itʼs more of the fact that youʼre playing catch-up in games in terms of you might three games behind the rest of the field, but itʼs no distraction and I think if youʼre winning games it breeds confidence, so if you can go in those games and win then I donʼt see why you canʼt be happy”.

Tigerless

Hull City looked forward to playing in Europe despite losing two cup finals last season, they were given the opportunity. Beat Lokeren and the European tour was on. A 1-0 defeat in Belgium left a far from unattainable task, but the dream ended before it started. Lokeren got a crucial away goal.

Robbie Brady got both Hullʼs goals, but resting key players cost them dear. Allan McGregorʼs error in Belgium in the first leg proved costly as did the red card shown to Yaninck Sagbo.

Ultimately the Europa League was disrespected. Despite beating Belgian outfit Lokeren 2-1 Hull Cityʼs European adventure ended before it got started. Steve Bruce and Hull City fans can at least console themselves with a pair of astute signings ahead of the Premier League campaign. Former Spurs captain Michael Dawson joins Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone at the KC Stadium.

Uruguayʼs forgotten striker Abel Hernández Platera awaits a work permit after leaving Sicilian club Palermo. Hernández rejected Benfica for Hull. Their conquerors were drawn against Ukraineʼs Metalist Kharkiv, Turkeyʼs Trabszonspor and Polandʼs Legia Warszawa, who were controversially ejected from the Championʼs League.

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Sevilla hope to poop Baleʼs Party

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (August 11th 2014)

Team Spirit

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Unai Emery Etxegoien is not surprised by Gareth Baleʼs success in Spain. The first time the former Valencia coach encountered the mercurial Welshman Sevilla were on the wrong end of a 7-3 drubbing, but Emeryʼs charges got their revenge. Emery concedes that Real Madrid are the favourites for tomorrowʼs UEFA Supercup. “Of course Real Madrid is the favourite, but we believe we can repeat the feat and beat them”, Emery told a pre-match press conference this evening.

He conceded that they had a strategy, but much would depend on whether Carlo Ancelottiʼs side allowed Sevilla to execute it. Newly appointed Sevilla skipper Federico Fazio praised his teamʼs spirit. “We were able to get that team spirit to overcome opponents that were stronger than us”, the Argentine international said. “The way we work we can bring our qualities to bear on the match”.

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The Homecoming

Gareth Baleʼs world record transfer fee hasnʼt fazed the Welshman. Baleʼs homecoming has dominated headlines, but both Bale and his coach Ancelotti expect to see more from him this season. “Itʼs great to be back home, but the most important thing is to win”, Bale said. “Itʼs nice not being new and start the season settled. Itʼs a lot easier having a pre-season than waiting for a transfer to go through”.

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Ancelotti expects an even better season from him than the last. “Gareth last year had made a fantastic season”, Ancelotti said. “This season is different. He knows the team-mates; he knows the club. Iʼm sure he will be better”.

Emery joined in the praise. “He has adapted quickly and itʼs down to his character and personality”, Emery said. “His style and team match and that has been key to his success”. Meanwhile, Ancelotti couldnʼt resist. “I donʼt know if heʼs going to play”, Ancelotti said. “Could be strange if he starts on the bench”.

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Improvements

Despite his wishes to follow compatriot James Rodríguez out of the French Riviera Radamel Falcao looks set to continue his purgatory in the Principality. Meanwhile the 22-year-old assists leader in Ligue Un capitalised on a magnificent World Cup to earn his move to the Bernabeu for £63m. World Cup winner Toni Kroos also made the move to the European Champions.

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I saw really good player with fantastic quality”, Ancelotti said of James Rodríguez. “Of course he can help the team to be better. Rodriguez will start. I think he can play in front on the wings, behind the forward, but he can also play deeper”. Ancelotti confirmed that the prodigiously talented Colombian play-maker and Kroos will start the Supercup at the Cardiff City Stadium tomorrow night.

While both Emery and Ancelotti want to win the UEFA Supercup tomorrow night both know the real business is La Liga.

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