Europa League- It’s only a must-win if people actually want to win it.

Posted on December 16, 2009

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Fulham kicks off against FC Basel in a few hours for what could possibly be their final appearance in the tournament this year.  Both teams have something on the line in this matchup.  Fulham needs a win to advance.  Basel needs just a draw to advance, but a win would help them leapfrog Roma to get a seeded place in the knockout rounds.  With both of these variables in play, the game should see plenty of open play and a minimum of eye-covering, casual-fan-hating, yawn-inducing defensive work.  I’m looking forward to seeing my favorite band of scrappy second stringers dig in and try to get some glory.

Roy Hodgson has already gone on record as saying that he’s over this tournament and would just as soon see their run end.  Ignoring the slight sour-grapes tone that’s clearly snuck in based on the refereeing in the Roma games, from a managerial perspective, this makes a lot of sense.  The Premier League is ultra-competitive for teams like Fulham- the difference between 7th place and 17th place is only a few dropped games, and Roy’s ultimate goal is to keep this team in the Premier League.  Survival will never be assured.  Cold-blooded pragmatism must always be the prevailing sentiment, or we’ll see Fulham crash into the Championship like a quarter dropped off the Sears Tower.

I can’t imagine how those words go over with the players, though.  Roy is basically saying that he doesn’t care about winning the tournament- and granted, the odds of that were slim to begin with- but as a competitor, that has to get the blood boiling.  Isn’t that half the fun?  To take your team, your skills, your game, stack them up against whoever the schedule dictates and see what develops?  Europa League is a reward for a top 7 finish, not a punishment for daring to fly too close to the sun.  It’s a reward!  And when you consider that a genuine “2nd string” has emerged to play most of these games, Roy’s words can be even more hurtful.  Earmuffs, Stephen Kelly, Bjorn Helge Riise, Zoltan Gera, David Stockdale.  All you guys that don’t get regular first team, Premier League soccer?  This competition that you are basically owning, laying it on the line for, is meaningless to your manager.  As a competitor, it can’t feel good to know those games you play are glorified exhibitions, only valuable insofar as it keeps you from developing rust on your legs like a boat anchor.

It’s disheartening for the fans, too.  Once in a lifetime opportunities are called that for a reason.  If they showed up every Saturday to mow your lawn, then they could be taken for granted.  But it isn’t like Fulham go to the Europa League every year.   In fact, I think this is the first time in quite awhile.  So why not go big?  What’s stopping us?  I know a thing or two about missing opportunities because I didn’t take them seriously at the time.  We rarely recognize them when they’re happening, usually because we’ve got other stuff going on.  The only known solution to this?  You guessed it- doing every opportunity to the max.  For the fans, it’s heartbreaking to watch rare chances like the Europa League be run down because nobody wants to go after it full tilt.  For the players, I imagine it feels the same way.

I guess I can only hope Roy is good enough to make this a regular thing.

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