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Europa League need not be a burden for Southampton

Posted on | August 27, 2015 | No Comments

For a number of years now, the Europa League has been lumped with the unfortunate burden of being viewed as the ugly sister to the Champions League’s Cinderella.

Those unable to secure themselves a ticket to the grandest of sporting balls are forced to shelve the glass slippers and make peace with an appearance at the Thursday night after party.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that the bright lights of European football’s premier club competition cast a sizeable shadow, but it would be wrong to view those on the outside looking in as fumbling around in the dark.

After all, a continental prize is at stake here – one which now offers a seat at the Champions League’s top table for the victors.

Unlike that elite tournament, which is realistically up for grabs for a handful of elite clubs – those with the deepest pockets – the Europa League is fiercely competitive and could end up in the hands of any number of sides from across the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga.

Southampton are unlikely to be setting their sights that high, as they embark on a rare adventure on foreign fields, but they should be looking to take plenty of positives out of the campaign.

The toils of Everton in 2014/15, as their squad struggled to juggle the demands of domestic and continental action, have led a number of observers to question the value of the competition to those outside of the established ‘big six’ that are capable of loading their ranks with the required depth.

The Saints, despite the best efforts of Ronald Koeman, are probably not as well-stocked as they would like, with the last two summer transfer windows doing them few favours in terms of the retention of key men – with unwanted rumours still speculating on the future of some of those on their books.

There is, however, plenty to be said for naming a settled side and giving those favoured options as many outings as possible in which to gel and strike up the kind of understandings that will serve the club well heading forward.

It is for that reason that Southampton should be looking to embrace progress in the Europa League, with betting exchanges such as those at betfair setting odds at the time of writing of 11/10 that Koeman’s men are capable of qualifying for the group stage with the minimum of fuss when they take in the second leg of their play-off clash with FC Midtjylland on Thursday.

That contest remains all square at present, with the Saints rather huffing and puffing their way to a 1-1 draw with the Danish champions at St Mary’s, but they will feel that there is plenty left in the tank.

They need to start digging that out, with a slow start to the new season offering ammunition to those reluctant to acknowledge the benefits of competing on multiple fronts outside of the established events on the English calendar. Southampton’s campaign certainly started earlier than most of their Premier League rivals – with West Ham United also yet to get going, a shock win at Arsenal aside, after entering the Europa League at the earliest possible stage. The Saints, though, will feel that competitive action in pre-season, rather than endless friendly encounters, should have stood them in good stead, with bodies and minds focused on the task ahead. That should remain the mindset, with the occasional break from the pressures of the Premier League and the pursuit of precious points no bad thing. Midweek football should be viewed as a platform on which to build momentum and a feel- good factor around the club, which can then be carried over into the more important business of pushing up the English top-flight standings. The likes of Fulham and Middlesbrough have shown in the not too distant past how the Europa League – then the UEFA Cup – can be used to great effect, offering a welcome distraction to events on home soil. Both sides made it all the way to the final – Boro in 2006 and Fulham in 2010 – before falling at the last hurdle to competition specialists Sevilla, and an Atletico Madrid side of Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan respectively. Who is to say that Southampton cannot repeat those heroics – or go one step further?

That remains a faraway dream for now, but the south coast outfit should be aiming high.

Having broken back into the European pack following an 11-year absence, they should be looking to make their mark in illustrious company and prove that they deserve to be regular entrants in the years to come – putting them on the map and aiding future recruitment drives.

A recent study by football finance expert Dr Tom Markham, published on Sporting Intelligence, has the Saints as the seventh most valuable club in England – ahead of the likes of Everton, Newcastle United and West Ham United and a far cry from their two-season stint in League One just four years ago.

They have come a long way in a short space of time, but deserve to be on such a pedestal and need to ensure that they stay there – embracing the challenges posed by European football and looking to kick on towards the ultimate goal of forcing their way into top-four contention in the Premier League.



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