Swansea, Wigan and Millwall - Are these sides cut out for Europe?
For the first time since 1995-96, there wasn’t an English team in the Champions League league quarter-finals whereas half of the quarterfinalists in the Europa League were English teams. And in the next season we will see Swansea and Wigan/Millwall play in Europe. Is the quality of the Premier League declining? Can these “newbie” sides challenge the seasoned European campaigners in the likes of Inter Milan, Porto or Atletico Madrid?
Swansea’s emphasis on mobility and kaleidoscopic passing had earned the team the cheeky moniker “the Welsh Barcelona.” When previous manager Brendan Rodgers left for Liverpool in May, soon to be followed by young midfield anchor Joe Allen, the talent vacuum was filled by prophecies of doom. But the new Swansea under Michael Laudrup have been a revelation. Laudrup has tweaked Swansea’s system, encouraging a bolder, more direct style. Full backs Angel Rangel and Ben Davies are eager to push into advanced positions and exploit the space created by wingers who have been given permission to desert the flanks and cut inside. Michu has stolen the headlines with his goal-scoring antics, yet his commitment to team=play and willingness to drop deep has not gone unnoticed. They have what it takes to beat top sides as they showed by beating the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool on the way to winning the Capital One Cup. Swansea in the Europa League would be a major step forward for Welsh Football and for the club too. Considering the well structured team and a fluid style of play that the Swans employ, with a little bit of luck in the draw they can garner a place in the later stages of the tournament.
A Hernan Crespo goal late into injury time introduced Premiership life to newly promoted Wigan Athletic Football club in August 2005. They have been in the Premier League ever since but are one team you associate with the Premier League relegation battle almost every season, but somehow they pull the rabbit out of the hat and survive. Roberto Martinez’s style is much fashioned on the midfield controlling play and quick counter attacks based on long punts up the field. Given the ‘theft’ of talent from the squad over the last 5 years, one can only laud the Spaniard’s style of play, given the resources he has. But then again, a crucial factor that has kept Wigan up and fighting is the induction of self-belief and determination into the team brought about by Martinez. His style of play might not be the most attractive but has definitely been effective and Wigan have claimed their fair share of big scalps along the relegation battle run-in, as seen last season when they defeated Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Newcastle. If they get into the FA Cup final and then into Europe, the exposure would do wonders for them. A couple of solid star signings and we may see an extended cup run too.
22nd May 2004, Millenium Stadium. Manchester United beat Millwall 3-0 to win their record eleventh FA Cup but it was a fairytale run for The Lions which resulted in the highs of European nights at The Den. Since then, Millwall have been relegated to League One and now are on the verge of doing so again if they don’t improve their form. Even though Millwall’s cup run has been fantastic, one has to note that apart from a “relegation threatened abysmal” Aston Villa they have not encountered quality opposition. Wigan will be a tough test but should they reach the final and subsequently Europe, then they know they have their task cut out if they want to stay in the Europa League as the last time they were knocked out in the first qualification round itself by relatively unknown then Hungarian Champions Ferencvaros.
As they say “There are two sides to a coin”, similarly there can be two conclusions that could be drawn out from past instances of teams competing in Europe for the first time. One doesn’t have to look far to draw inspiration. Fulham qualified for the first ever re-branded Europe League and went all the way to the finals of the inaugural competition. On the way they beat the likes of Juventus, Hamburg and Wolfsburg before losing out to Atletico Madrid in extra-time. Another example would be that of Tottenham Hotspur who, in their debut Champions League campaign, went all the way to the quarterfinals, beating the likes of AC Milan and Inter before falling short against the Galacticos of Real Madrid. But there have also been many instances of teams not even being able to clear the first hurdle in European Competitions after doing so well on domestic fronts. Take for example, Manchester City. Yes, one may argue that they had a tough draw for the past two seasons but with billions of dollars flushed in to create a star studded team, one expects better results but that’s not always the case.
Football has a crazy habit of often dishing out the most unexpected scenarios. Whether any of these aforementioned teams have it in them to mount a challenge in Europe, your guess is as good as mine; till then enjoy the beautiful game.