29/07/2015: Europa League Preview
Saints have enjoyed plenty of success in recent years, but there haven't been too many matches that have been anticipated as much as the upcoming clashes with Vitesse Arnhem. Both legs are sold out. Saints could have filled the away allocation of 1,400 four times over. All this for a competition overlooked and derided by so many. The excitement is entirely justified. European football doesn't come along too often. There are very few reasons why it shouldn't be embraced.
The novelty of Premier League football has well and truly worn off by now. The last three years have been brilliant, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that we've progressed as far as we can. The best chance of cracking the top four has passed us by, and it's difficult to know what fresh joy can be gleaned from league football alone. We've done pretty much all there is for us to do over the last three seasons. The cups, in particular the Europa League offer something exciting, something different. Going to Stoke for the hundredth time or watching West Ham come down to St Mary's to grind out another 0-0 doesn't sound anywhere near as appealing as a European adventure. It barely matters what teams we play against, it'll all be a fresh experience.
This is the first opportunity many Saints fans will get to see their team in Europe. Many others only tasted it briefly in 2003, and those who were following Saints in the 1980s will only have distant memories of trips to Lisbon and Hamburg. Travelling fans will have the opportunity to visit places they might never have normally. There's something special about the idea of thousands of Saints fans converging on one particular spot hundreds of miles from home. Fans at St Mary's should experience a great atmosphere too. Even having games on a Thursday night is a departure from the norm.
One of the primary reasons the Europa League detractors cite when dismissing the tournament is that it adversely affects domestic form. There probably is certain degree of truth in that, but providing things don't go drastically wrong, does it really matter? Europa League or not, it's extremely unlikely that we'll be challenging for the Champions League next season. Equally, we almost certainly won't go down either. A mid-table finish is the most likely outcome. Stoke and Swansea suffered a dip in league form when they were in the competition, but ultimately were fine in the long run. Everton recovered from a poor run of form very soon after they were knocked out of the competition last season.
Saints would probably have finished lower this season even if we hadn't qualified for Europe. Two more star players have gone, while the teams above have mostly improved. At best we might be able to match last season's points tally, but it's unlikely that we'll break it by a significant margin. With that in mind, taking our eye off the league shouldn't be too much of a concern. We should strive to progress as far as we can in the tournament, because the risks aren't that great. Finishing a few places lower is a small price to pay for the excitement that could be generated from a decent run in the competition. We've all heard other Premier League managers decry the competition, partly due to the low prize money on offer. It's an absurd attitude to have, and one I pray we won't take. Sacrificing the Europa League so you can push as high up the league as you can, and err... maybe qualify for the Europa League again.
Another reason to look forward to the Europa League is the quality of the tournament itself. It's far from the joke competition that many would have you believe. There's often more variety to it than there is in Champions League, and the winners are now rewarded with a place in the aforementioned tournament.
Our chances of progressing all the way to the final in Basel may appear to be slim, but just being part of the tournament for a while could capture the imagination of the city. Anything less than group stage qualification would be considered a disappointment, but if we get past the play-off round we'll have six more games guaranteed on top of the previous four. That should make for a satisfying campaign. Since the 2009 takeover we've progressed year on year, achieving different things every season. A good run in the Europa League would be another accomplishment to add to the list.