Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Europa League - In it to win it

By Nashat Hassan (Follow me on Twitter)

Most people have different ways of coping with a bad football result. Some people tend to vent their frustrations through swearing at the TV while others like to discuss the match they’ve just witnessed with their friends or family over a pint while talking about what went wrong that game. I’m the kind of person who likes to keep quiet after a dodgy result. Off goes the phone and on comes the Playstation3 as I try to recreate the same match on PES 2012, except this time my team wins.

Back in December, Manchester United travelled to St Jakob Park needing only a draw to proceed into the Uefa Champions League knock-out stages. It seemed like an easy task on paper, but we all know football loves to spring out surprises every now and then. Even though our form was poor at the time, we were still pretty much favourites to win the tie against a much weaker side in FC Basel. If asking for a win was too much however, a draw would still have been a good enough result for us to go through to the knock out rounds with the only real repercussion being an increased likelihood of us having to face a stronger opposition in the next stage of the competition.

I still remember being fairly confident before kick off, thinking we’ve been in these situations before. Being Manchester United, we’ve nearly always managed to squirm our way through almost any tough situation, time and time again. The phrase ‘they always score’ springs to mind.

Some 90 minutes later though, something had gone off inside me. Considering I do not normally blame the players and the manager, it really did come as a shock as to how furious and upset I was. There would be no excuses this time round. Most of my anger was aimed towards Sir Alex, where I felt he had let himself and the club down with poor managerial decisions throughout the course of our Champions League campaign, something which I am yet to change my stand on. I have always felt we tend to underestimate our opponents at the most dangerous and unnecessary times, with Leeds in the FA Cup being the most recent notable example that springs to mind in which we lost 1-0 at Old Trafford to a team two divisions below us.

Now, I can appreciate the importance of squad rotation in current day football with us playing around 70 games every season, but the way we managed our squad during those 6 relatively easy games was suicide. The fact that we had only won 2 games throughout the entire campaign, both against Otelul Galati, speaks volumes of how badly we had played during that period, something which I believe is a direct result of team selection inconsistencies and lack of rhythm within our play. Sir Alex described our draw at home to Basel as the key game that we should have won, especially after we were 2-0 up at one point.

I think the Basel result at home is the one where it went wrong. That’s the one where we’ve got to hold our hands up and say that was stupid. We threw it away that night - it was carelessness. It was 2-0 and could have been 5-0, so we’ve only got ourselves to blame in that aspect.” Sir Alex Ferguson

Well, after a run of poor performances, the almighty Manchester United had deservedly dropped out of the Uefa Champions League and had crash landed into a very unfamiliar territory which is often referred to as a ‘European League Cup’ due to most English sides playing their second string teams in the competition to reduce the risk of fatigue and injuries on the clubs attempts at doing as well as they can in their domestic league. Some fans would go as far as o say that ending up as forth in the group stages of the Champions League and being eliminated from all the European competitions altogether, would have even been a smaller loss than having to deal with the hassle of the Europa League and its late Thursday night kick offs. Admittedly, I shared the same feelings myself, as I dreaded the thought of having to face my non-United supporting friends. The vision of rival fans chanting “Thursday nights, Channel 5” grew in my head as I tried to imagine what it would be like for us for the next few months. Embarrassing.

However, I am delighted to say that just a few months after our elimination from the world’s most prestigious club tournament; I could not be any more excited about how well the Europa League has shaped up so far. 

Firstly, the fact that the players and the manager have taken this competition seriously has given me a reason for wanting us to win it. The fact that we have never won the cup before is just an added incentive for us to go out there and give it our best shot. That aside, I would still feel we should try and win the competition should it have been any other way. There is no reason for us to sit here feeling sorry for ourselves when we can go out there and remind Europe that we’re still a force to be reckoned with.

Secondly, for our long term ambition, and for the large number of young players still  to gain any major experience in Europe, it is vital that they can go out there and learn their trade. This is something that can only benefit the likes of Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley who can use this competition as a spring-step to come back even stronger next season and help us push on towards our 4th Champions League trophy.

Thirdly, the fact that there are still many prestigious clubs battling it out alongside us in the tournament means we could be up for some top quality football matches. The thought of us being matched up against sides the like of Porto, Valencia, Atletico Madrid and of course our noisy neighbours Manchester City is mouth watering and something we should savour.

Lastly, and the most important factor for me, as it is without a doubt the biggest factor that has changed my views on why we should do our best in the Europa League is our fans. They have been nothing short of sensational in the way which they have dealt with the whole thing. While many other clubs would have sat there and moaned (a bit like me), our boys have gone out there every weekend and sung their hearts out to let the players know we’re right behind them. Choruses of “Oh Channel 5 is wonderful. It’s full of news, weather and United” have echoed weekly throughout Old Trafford and away grounds all over the country to mock our opposing fans who have tried to put a downer on our current state.

So, with us set to play Ajax at Old Trafford so soon, I will be looking forward to Sir Alex Ferguson setting out another strong attacking line up to take on our Dutch opponents, just like he did at Amsterdam where we we’re unfortunate to only win by a two goal margin. Hopefully we can up our performance by a few gears and dish out a good hammering to our opponents as a reward to our fans which is just what they deserve after how amazing they have been throughout the past couple of months. In case that doesn’t happen for whatever reason though, I’d just like to take a minute to say thank you to all our brilliant fans that made it so much easier for some of us more grumpy folk to look forward to May where, fingers crossed, we’ll be parading our 20th title across Manchester as well as our first ever Europa League trophy.

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