Championship Play-Off Final: Michael Owen’s View
For Arsenal last season, the Europa League offered one thing – salvation. It became clear very early in the season that Arsène Wenger’s side wouldn’t finish in the top four in the Premier League and so the Europa League became their only route back into the Champions League. This season, though, it’s different.
Unai Emery’s revolution at the club is now in full swing, with the Gunners’ victory over Leicester City on Monday night extending their winning run to 10 games. There are signs that Arsenal are starting to rediscover their identity again, with the sensationally well-worked third goal scored against the Foxes the purest manifestation of this yet.
What Emery has undertaken at the Emirates Stadium is about more than just one game or one competition, like the Europa League. This is a far bigger project that can only be measured over the long term. Arsenal aren’t embarking on this mission just to get back in the Champions League, although that would certainly signify progress. They’re doing it to get back to the top, to instill some principles in their play too.
The Europa League doesn’t just present Arsenal with a chance to win a trophy, but to instill a winning mentality at the club again. The need to win the competition this season doesn’t feel as desperate as it did 12 months purely because there seems to be an acceptance of the wider mission at hand.
Chelsea are another elite club who have been forced to accept Europa League qualification as a consolation prize, but given their start to the season under Maurizio Sarri the competition might come to pose something of a nuisance. Chelsea might even be title challengers this season, with their place in the top four, and next season’s Champions League, presumed by many to be assured.
The award of a Champions League place to the Europa League winners was designed to invigorate European football’s secondary club competition, and in a way it has. Big clubs now prioritise it, just look at the winners in each of the past two seasons – Atletico Madrid and Manchester United.
But by dangling that carrot, UEFA has, on the flip side, lowered the value of the Europa League as a competition in its own right. It would therefore be refreshing to see two teams, Arsenal and Chelsea, look at it as something more than just a route back into the Champions League. Both clubs could use the Europa League as part of something bigger as they plot a way back to the top.
Europe League Outright Odds:
Bayer Leverkusen 12/1