MONACO – Beyond the glamor (and absurd transfer fees) surrounding the Champions League, there is a competition with a more representative portrayal of not only European soccer but the environment of modern football as well.
Since its inception, the Europa League has shown the cyclical nature of the European game. It's where golden generations arise from unassuming places. It's where powerhouses fall from Champions League grace. On the surface, this makes Europa League appear to be a sort of purgatory between the Champions League and insignificance, but make no mistake, subjectivity reigns supreme. Some clubs will use the competition to serve short term aspirations. Others see Europa League as part of a larger project.
Reigning Europa League champions, FC Porto, play Barcelona this Friday in Monaco for the UEFA Supercup; however, it was only a year ago that then-manager Andre Villas-Boas was searching for a way to overcome Jorge Jesus's resurgent Benfica. Though Porto lost their two shining stars this summer (Colombian striker Radamel Falcao and Villas-Boas himself), they made a sizeable profit that will be reinvested into the club's first team and academy.
Porto received nearly 8 million euros for winning the Europa League, part of UEFA's innovative revenue distribution that gives over 150 million euros to the competition's 56 clubs, a figure much larger than what was previously awarded in the UEFA Cup. The money will never compare to the Champions League, but in a time when debt runs rampant throughout European football, the financial incentives the Europa League offers are attractive enough to make even the largest clubs take the competition seriously.
Porto, now competing in the Champions League, have been a perfect example of the stepping stone-esque complex the Europa League provides. New manager Vitor Pereira undeniably sits in the shadow of Villas-Boas, but the past year of success has launched the club into a potential era of sustainable dominance in Portuguese football. The club's trajectory toward becoming a world-class club is hardly a coincidence, but with their absence from the Europa League this season the question of who will be this year's Porto arises. The clubs that exit the Champions League (being relegated to Europa by finishing third in group play) always become likely contenders to compete for the title, but at the moment there are three clubs with entirely different philosophies ready to realize their potential.
Money is no object in Paris
Much is expected of Paris Saint-Germain's biggest signing, midfielder Javier Pastore. (Photo: AP Photo/Mathieu Cugnot)
While the Europa League prides itself on sustainability, PSG has no interest in anything other than the fast track to becoming the strongest side Ligue 1 has seen in modern football. With a seemingly endless supply of funds stemming from Qatari investors, Paris Saint-Germain, with the appointment of Leonardo as the club's sporting director, has all eyes set on the trophy cabinet. Having spent 86 million euros this summer on the likes of Javier Pastore (€43m), Kevin Gameiro (€11m) Blaise Matuidi (€10m), Jeremy Menez (€8m), Mohamed Sissoko (€7m), amongst others, PSG's task is to immediately a successful level of cohesion. The talent is there, and the squad will only strengthen as time passes, but manager Antoine Kombouare knows that his job isn't safe unless the positive results come pouring in.
Whispers of Carlo Ancelotti taking the helm of PSG won't help Kombouare sleep at night, but the reality is that the Parc des Princes will become one of the most dreaded stadiums to travel to over the next couple of seasons, regardless of whether Kombouare is in charge or not.
An Argentine Genius and a Golden Generation Forming in Basque Country
Marcelo Bielsa returns to Spain, this time in charge of the Basque-base, Basque-infused Athletic Bilbao. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Unlike the piles of money strewn across Paris and Malaga, within the Basque Mountains the force that is Athletic Bilbao is ready to take advantage of the rare opportunity to compete outside of Spain. With perhaps the managerial coup of the summer, Athletic Bilbao's made the signing of Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa one of the most highly anticipated additions to La Liga . The man from Rosario (known as "El Loco") created arguably the best Chile side ever before his move to back to Spain, with fans of Los Leones expecting the same attacking, high pressure tactics at San Mames. Despite Bielsa's paramount knowledge of South American talent, he will face Athletic Bilbao's limitations of only being able to field Basque-born players.
That being said, this Athletic Bilbao side's chemistry is amongst the best in Spain, and the level of loyalty Bielsa has in his squad matches any national team he has ever coached. Fernando Llorente, now a mainstay in the Spanish national team set up, is the most dangerous number nine in the country, though the true blessing Bielsa can use to his advantage is a golden generation of Basque midfielders. The ever-blooming partnership between 22-year-olds Javi Martínez (provided he stays in midfield) and Ander Herrera has the ability to dominate the middle of the pitch against any opponent outside of Catalunya. But with no trips to the Camp Nou in Bilbao's foreseeable Europa League future, those two starlets, working alongside Athletic Bilbao's 32-year-old captain Pablo Orbaiz, could be impossible for this tournament to compete with.
A big question mark hangs over winger Iker Muniain, who is still only 18-years-old. Last year, manager Joaquín Caparrós was eager to start Iker regularly, however, the youngster had problems being effective going forward on a consistent basis and by the end of the season was reduced to a super-sub role. After a year of experience and a summer spent with Spain's U20s and U21s, all of Basque country is holding their breath to see if Muniain can become the same mercurial goal scorer he was in Athletic's academy. If Bielsa can find a way to harness Muniain's raw ability, that could be the final piece to the puzzle of European success.
Tiki-taka at Stadio Olimpico
Francesco Totti remains at Roma, as does Daniele de Rossi. Gone are Mirko Vucinic, Jeremy Menez, John Arne Riise and Philippe Mexes. (Photo: Getty Images)
In the past decade of Italian calcio, Northern Italy has been in control of Serie A . Palermo and Napoli have audaciously made strides forward, but no one looks likely to challenge AC Milan or Inter Milan for a scudetto anytime soon. However, with Juventus out of European competitions entirely, AS Roma have rebuilt an aging side, and something special could come from the Eternal City this campaign. Roma have turned to former Barcelona B coach Luis Enrique to bring a refreshing style of play to Stadio Olimpico. Not only did Enrique help groom players like Thiago, Nolito, and Andreu Fontas at Barça B, but he also led his side to its most successful season ever, a 3rd place finish in the Segunda División .
Enrique's main challenges will be adapting to a much higher standard of play, as well as finding an appropriate attacking balance between young new signings (such as Erik Lamela and Bojan Krkic) and the more experienced talents (Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi, Simone Perrota, and Marco Borriello). If Enrique's approach is implemented effectively, Roma could have one of the most entertaining attacks in Europe, though the loss of Philippe Mexes to AC Milan could mean new Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg will be called upon far too often.