In the fifth round of group stage matches of the 2018 – 2019 UEFA Europa League, Britain’s four participants gave a strong showing by not conceding a single goal in the competition. It is secondary to UEFA’s Champions League and widely regarded as being less prestigious. Such a view is often reflected in team selection for UEFA Europa League games. They can be seen by many managers as an opportunity to use either players on the periphery of their squads or youngsters. Not all choose to, instead they field the strongest team available to them.
Whichever approach to the competition the managers of those British clubs involved have taken, each can claim the achievement of positive results. Neither Arsenal nor Chelsea have been beaten in qualifying for the last 32, which is a stage of the competition that Celtic and Rangers are in contention to reach. Rather than perceiving UEFA’s Europa League to be an unwanted distraction from domestic football, Britain’s participants have embraced the competition and the rewards which it offers.
For reaching the group stage alone, clubs collect a payment of €2.92m. There are also financial benefits for winning – €570,000 – and drawing – €190,000 – group stage games. For every round which a team further progresses, they receive incrementally larger amounts of money. The eventual winners are awarded €8,500,000. There is reasonable financial incentive for teams to do as well as they can, which does influence managerial decisions over team selection to a degree. There is little, to no, sense in forfeiting the chance to generate additional revenue by not taking the competition seriously.
Each manager of the four British participants recognises that and has endeavoured to meticulously prepare for UEFA Europa League games. They have been rewarded for doing so with good results, the most perfect of which are those of Chelsea.
Their manager Maurizio Sarri revealed the extent to which the UEFA Europa League was important to him by naming an experienced starting line – up for his team’s opening group stage game against PAOK Salonika. It was the start of a trend for Sarri because he has continued to select strong team’s, albeit with the inclusion of some individuals which don’t feature often domestically.
Among those are Cesc Fabregas and Reuben Loftus – Cheek. They have both done exceptionally well in Chelsea’s midfield. Whereas Fabregas was the man of the match in a 1 – 0 win over MOL Vidi, Loftus – Cheek claimed the same accolade in Chelsea’s next UEFA Europa League game. The hat – trick which he scored inspired his team to beat Bate Borisov 3 – 1, which is the only goal that they have conceded in the competition. Otherwise goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has a perfect record. It is a clear indication of Sarri’s respect for the competition that he has played his first – choice goalkeeper, which cost £71.6m from Atletico Bilbao, in every game. The presence of Arrizabalaga has on occasion calmed a makeshift defence featuring Andreas Christensen and Emerson.
Just as Sarri made Chelsea’s intentions clear early in the UEFA Europa League, Unai Emery obviously places great value on the competition for Arsenal judging by the team’s he has picked. None of those have been stronger than the one which beat Vorskla Poltava 4 – 2. Although Emery made changes, such as introducing youngster Emile Smith – Rowe, for Arsenal’s next game against FK Qarabag, he maintained a strong spine to his team. For instance, Bernd Leno played in goal behind the central defensive partnership of Rob Holding and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. They helped their team to a 3 – 0 win, which Arsenal built upon by remaining unbeaten in two games against Sporting Lisbon. By doing so, they secured a place in the last 32, which is a stage that both Celtic and Rangers can still reach.
The two Scottish clubs have invested a great deal of effort, interest and resources in the UEFA Europa League. To create a more electrifying, intimidating and pulsating atmosphere inside Parkhead for European nights, Celtic’s board authorised the installation of ‘disco lights’, which made their debut before a game against Red Bull Leipzig. Throughout the match, the home support animatedly backed their team, spurring them on to a 2 – 1 victory. It was clear from the reaction of Celtic’s fans to Odsonne Edouard’s winning goal against RB Leipzig that the UEFA Europa League matters to them. It is also important to their manager Brendan Rodgers, since he has consistently played his best team in the competition.
Across Glasgow, his counterpart at Rangers, Steven Gerrard has done likewise. He guided his team through three qualifying rounds and a play – off to reach the group stage. As well as drawing at home [0 – 0] and away [2 – 2] to Villareal, Rangers have beaten Rapid Vienna. The inspiration behind that victory was Alfredo Morelos. Equally important as the striker to his team’s prospects of reaching the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League is goalkeeper Allan McGregor. He has been an ever – present for Gerrard. His maiden European campaign as a manager has generated several exciting nights at Ibrox and verges on being successful.
The importance of the UEFA Europa League not only to Rangers’ Gerrard but to the other three managers of British clubs involved is evident from their team selection. They have been respectful.