Tuesday’s soccer news starts with UEFA’s other competition. The 2020-21 Europa League concludes on Wednesday (3pm ET – CBS Sports Network) with Villarreal vs Manchester United in Gdansk. As always with the Europa League, it’s hard to figure out exactly what it means to the teams that find themselves in the final. Manchester United already has a Champions League spot due to finishing 2nd in the Premier League. Villarreal finished 7th in La Liga, taking Spain’s only Europa Conference League playoff spot. Should they win the Europa League, that would get an upgrade to the Champions League group stage.
“We’re going into the final in one of the best moments for us of the season,” Villarreal defender Alfonso Pedraza said…. “We’re full of excitement going into the final. We know what’s behind everything. The dream of a town, of a support and of a club, who dream of being champions.”
Villarreal knocked out Arsenal 2-1 in the semifinals with all the goals scored in the first-leg. Manchester United dominated the first-leg of their series with Roma, winning 6-2 and advancing 8-5 on aggregate.
Considering Villarreal is the smaller club with a Champions League spot on the line, it’s easy to pile on the pressure. It’s tough not to see them winning as an upset, even if they’ve got a European pedigree. Semifinalists in the UEFA Cup in 2003-04, the Champions League in 2005-06, the Europa League in 2010-11, and 2015-16, this could be seen as a team finally taking that next step.
Meanwhile, Manchester United has its own issues in a season that has two Premier League teams playing for the Champions League trophy. That one of them is the Premier League champion Manchester City only underlines the issues United continues to face. The protests following The Super League’s brief existence only showed how high expectations are for this club. Fans expect revenue to go into making them the strongest team in Europe.
That puts the Europa League into harsh perspective, the same as it did when United lifted the trophy under then-manager Jose Mourinho back in 2016-17. Back then, it was United using the Europa as a back door into next season’s Champions League. Mission somewhat accomplished, advancing as group winners but exiting in the knockout round. They made it to the quarterfinals in 2018-19, ending up in the Europa League last season where they exited in the semifinals.
“You always feel pressure at Man United to win things, to win trophies, of course,” Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said. “That’s one of the steps. I’ve said it before, a trophy can hide other imperfections. I think the progress in the league, going to semifinals, I think it shows progress. My discussions with the club, the dialogue we have, we see we have improved. The next step is to win trophies and hopefully challenge the champions in the Premier League as well.”
In other words, the Europa League counts because it remains on the schedule. It might not be the crescendo to a dominant season for either team, but it proves that they can navigate UEFA’s secondary tournament. That’s something European soccer’s governing body values highly enough that they attach to it a spot in the Champions League group stage. A reminder that the Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, and La Liga already advance their top four to that stage of the tournament isn’t going to flatter the Europa League.
Moving to the soccer news, MLSsoccer’s Matthew Doyle looks at the USMNT roster for the Nations League semifinals. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio also works through the roster. SI’s Avi Creditor with the season endings for USMNT players in Europe. Sportico’s Eben Novy-Williams and Scott Soshnick report on American investment in Liga MX club Necaxa. The Guardian’s Andy Brassell works through Werder Bremen’s relegation.
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