'Thursday night, ITV4' is no longer a crowd-borne insult, as Tottenham, Chelsea and Newcastle chase a trophy while the Champions League is the concern only of continental clubs
The Europa League: it's so hot right now. With no English club in the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in 17 years it is of course predictable – and let us also be fair – understandable that attention in English football should re-focus on Europe's secondary, and hitherto rather overlooked, disdained and generally trash-talked club competition. If only because it is here in the last eight of the Europa League that English football finds itself alternatively represented, with Chelsea (just), Tottenham Hotspur (just) and Newcastle United (also just) overcoming assorted middle-to-cruiserweight opposition this week to make it to the last eight.
Plus of course, the draw has been kind. The three English clubs have duly avoided one another and will instead be hoicking their entirely incidental disproportionately massive TV advertising revenues around an assortment of European destinations 3,400 miles apart. And so here it is. Get ready for Europa fever as the English football media and, possibly even public, find the perfect moment to realise finally that the Champions League is an overblown cash-sozzled sell-out and that it is in the Europa – hem, hem – that we find true variety, not to mention the older virtues of team-building, fiscal parity and a sense of genuine competition.
There is a powerful likelihood at least one English club will reach the final, to be played – with an appropriate edge of historical micro-chic – at the Amsterdam ArenA on 15 May. With this in mind it seems likely the next two months of midweek football will be sidetracked by the competing excitements of newbie Europa enthusiasm plus, at a lower pitch, a chorus of hipsterish dismay as the full-beam mainstream descends on a tournament that has carried a sense of being a niche pleasure for those who like their European football underexposed, anti-Redknapped and blessed with an almost nostalgic sense of hinterland.
It is four years now since the Europa League was concocted as a mash-up of the Uefa and long since departed Cup Winners' Cups, restyled as an aspirational mob-handed cut-and-paste Champions League-style product in its own right. As the competition has become established initial scepticism about its obvious commercial intent has given way, grudgingly, to an appreciation first of all of its enduring diversity: by way of example, this year's qualifying rounds featured Elfsborg of Sweden beating Floriana of Malta 12-0, this despite the presence in the Maltese club's goal of Tony Warner, formerly of Liverpool, Swindon Town, Celtic, Aberdeen, Millwall, Cardiff City, Fulham, Leeds, Norwich, Barnsley, Hull City, Leicester, Charlton, Scunthorpe and Tranmere. This, before the absolute triumph of TV-fed revenues, was in large part what European football was all about.
In the competition proper the Europa League has also produced both high-quality football and alluring diversity in its late stages. Five Spanish winners in the past nine years is as powerful an indication of La Liga's generational strength as Barcelona's simultaneous domination of the Champions League. And yet this is still a competition that has allowed Fulham, Shakhtar Donetsk, Zenit St Petersburg, Middlesbrough (remember that?) and Braga to reach their first European finals.
It is perhaps not unduly forward for supporters of Premier League teams to hope that the presence of three English representatives will bolster standards further. Not least because there appears to be genuine desire to actually win it. It is a mark of how far the Champions League has distorted the focus of Europe's elite clubs that it is necessary to record the fact that both Rafa Benítez and, in particular, André Villas-Boas palpably want to win Europe's secondary cup competition, despite the distraction of ensuring entrance to next year's Champions League. If, for Benítez, there is a sense of self-promotion in this, of a pruning of the personal CV, for Villas-Boas the Europa League remains the tournament in which, with Porto, he built his reputation, the means with which he escaped an immediate future of well-connected anonymity in Portugal, and a tournament that, beyond the itchy trigger-fingered hierarchies of the Premier League, presents him in his best light to the wider world.
For Spurs too, there is a heartening sense of focus on progressing as far as possible towards winning the club's first European trophy since 1984. The calamitously shaky extra-time away-goal defeat of Internazionale on Thursday night will do little to promote Tottenham's ambitions of finishing fourth this season, just as it did little for Villas-Boas's own reputation: for an hour Spurs presented Inter's diamond midfield with the equivalent of a set of precise sign-posted directions – the high defensive line, the lack of midfield pressure – towards the 4-0 victory that would put them in the quarter-finals. But to his credit Villas-Boas reorganised frantically, if a little late, while his players looked spooked but never discouraged. Their manager even managed to dredge from a wilting team the attacking flurry in extra time that would eventually settle the tie.
Similarly Chelsea and Newcastle, albeit aided by the prospect of little to play for elsewhere, are both committed to trying to win a competition that has been dismissed in the past by Premier League managers as costing more to compete in – no more stinging criticism than this – than it actually brings in revenue.
With this in mind, if the Europa does have a distinct advantage over the Champions League it is in its rather old-fashioned air of uncertainty. Pretty much every team left has an equal chance of winning it, and this degree of sporting egalitarianism should not be taken for granted, speaking as it does to the central flaw in European football's current trajectory towards a dwindling oligarch of fiscally-driven elitism. It is this sense of managed corporate tedium – the pulling up of the rope ladder by those clubs at the very top of the revenue rankings – that presents the biggest threat not so much to the ongoing triumph of European football, but to its tonal depth, its level of interest, its basic sporting principles.
Of course the Europa League will remain for many a stepping stone to other things – specifically to not being in the Europa League any more – not least among those left in the competition at this stage. But this is not to devalue it: football has always worked like this. Chelsea's opponents, Rubin Kazan of Russia, have played in the Champions League in the three seasons before this, while Fenerbahce versus Lazio is perhaps the tie of the round, even if a meeting of attacks boasting Dirk Kuyt and Louis Saha is perhaps unlikely to inspire chills as much as a sense of nostalgic oddity.
So steel yourself. "Thursday night, ITV4" is no longer a crowd-borne insult. For the rest of the season it is likely to represent a subtle shift in the gravity of the domestic footballing week as English football's European fixation recalibrates itself around the secondary spoils. A little perspective never did anybody any harm and a minor humbling may even be the best thing that's happened to the Premier League in a while.
Similarly the Europa League will be delighted with the enhanced coverage: with due apologies to the footballing left-fielder these are its most high-profile last-eight fixtures to date. Who knows, this could even be the start of a beautiful friendship.