Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Having watched a first-choice Villa team go out of the FA Cup in the third round to Man United for the fourth time in seven seasons, I feel particularly aggrieved by the practice of other clubs of a similar standing putting out less-than-full-strength teams this weekend. We're all aware by now that the big boys are likely to rest key players, especially if they're playing lower-division opposition - which is fair enough, as they shouldn't need their entire first-choice XI to beat a team from League One. It's also understandable that clubs sitting in the basement of the Premiership are going to concentrate on the league, because survival is worth a lot, lot more than a trophy.

However, this season it's been noted that clubs who are, surely, in no danger of getting relegated - the Evertons and the Blackburns - tried to get away with resting a few, and have got dumped out in amusingly embarassing fashion. It's been suggested that, for these clubs, getting into Europe is more of a priority. Yet it's unlikely that they'll make the European Cup (it's not a league and half the teams aren't champions), and even if they do they'll have to play a qualifying round - we all remember Everton's gargantuan effort to string together enough "gritty" one-nil wins to make fourth place in 2005, only to go out immediately to Sevilla (whom, it should be noted, a team like Arsenal or Liverpool would probably have avoided in the draw on account of their good recent European records: it's easy to forget how many good teams go into that qualifying round, because our representatives usually draw someone fairly beatable).

So teams who are prioritising "being in Europe" are, in effect, prioritising the UEFA Cup. Now... sorry, but how much does that really add to a season since the big boys decided they should all play each other every season rather than wasting time playing the champions of Luxembourg? OK, so the UEFA cup adds a bit of cash to a club's coffers, but is the opportunity to play
Aris Salonika and FC Brann really that enticing - to fans or players? Don't get me wrong, I'm keenly hoping that Villa make it this year, but I'd hate to think we were sacrificing any chance of winning the FA Cup or even the League Cup for the sake of our efforts to make the UEFA Cup.

The game is about winning things, not "being in" things. Conspicuously, the only English club to have won the UEFA Cup in over twenty years is Liverpool, in the days before it was possible to be crowned the champions of Europe after scraping fourth place in your domestic league, and the only English clubs to have won any European honours at all since the Heysel ban was lifted are now members of the Big Four. The others have a habit of muddling through against teams you've never heard of (and who, frankly, often sound made-up), then getting beaten by the first genuinely decent side they encounter. I, for one, was far more enthused in the 1990s when Villa won two League Cups than I was when we went out of the UEFA Cup on away goals in a 1998 quarter-final against Atletico Madrid. In fact, I didn't even remember that we got as far as the quarters that season - I had to look it up on Wikipedia - but I clearly remember the League Cup wins. Which proves my point quite well, I think.