COMMENTARY:: The European Conference League is coming to the end of its second year. Ever since the first preliminary rounds of the 2021/22 season, the new competition has taken a beating for teams that are too weak, with the biggest condemnation in the Czech Republic coming after Slavia crashed out of an easy group with Sivaspor, Cluj and Ballkani. Meanwhile, looking at last year’s and this year’s play-offs, the spectator is simply entertained.
Let’s start with last year. There are several stories that made the opening year of the Conference League a good one there. Feyenoord’s journey from the second preliminary round to the final or Boda Glimt’s trip to the quarterfinals probably impressed the most. And for both clubs they made a lot of economic sense. Seven of the players in Rotterdam’s starting line-up in the final against AS Roma are now kicking elsewhere, three of them even in the Premier League.
Feyenoord’s sell-off beautifully showcases the overlap of the new competition. Teams and players who wouldn’t normally take a peek at the cups can succeed in it and make their presence known. Take Yiro Sora, who has built his career on the Conference League without exaggeration.
He scored six times in six games, his speed making a mockery of both LASK Linz and Fenerbahce defenses. When he played in the league this weekend, he was half-hearted and unproductive. If it wasn’t for six months in the cups, he might not have made his mark in the red and white at all and certainly wouldn’t have signed for Genk in the summer of 2022.
A specific feature of the Conference League is that, thanks to weaker competition, teams that are struggling in domestic competition make it to the final rounds. This year, they are all semi-finalists. Fiorentina are probably in the best shape, seven points behind the Top 7. Alkmaar are five points clear of the top three in the Eredivisie, while West Ham are four points clear of relegation. Basel have been searching all season, they are sixth in the league, yet they made it through to the semi-finals.
Something similar is unlikely in the Europa League and Champions League. Even here, the underdog will break through from time to time, but in most cases they are having the season of their lives in every way. From the recent past, one could mention Ajax in the 2018/19 edition, this year it would be Benfica Lisbon. The latter finished in the quarter-finals due to one bad game, but otherwise dominated the domestic competition.
Less quality = more upsets
Related to the aforementioned weaker long-term form of all teams is the steadiness and frequent turnover. Thursday’s quarter-final rematches were entertaining mainly because of weak defensive lines by European Cup standards.
Teams lacked the experience to maintain the lead they had built up, resulting in four dramas to the end. Although West Ham outplayed Gent 4-1 in the return leg, they were trailing until the 37th minute and only celebrated the equaliser in the 55th minute.
Fiorentina lost their 4:1 lead to Poznan, Lech were 3:0 up and the favourite was saved by two late goals. Basel is a perfect example of a team from the Conference League whose defence is on fire, but always manages to shoot their way out of the blues.
That’s how they kicked their way past Slovan Bratislava and Nice, both in overtime. And Alkmaar stretched a two-goal deficit to Anderlecht Brussels at home to make the top four on penalties.
In summary, then, Europe’s third most prestigious international competition is of the greatest importance to teams from the smaller leagues. As far as the Top 5 leagues are concerned, the motivation is for the mid-table teams.
For the players of these clubs, the Conference League means a unique opportunity to prove themselves in Europe, for the fans a chance to enjoy another portion of matches that are interesting at least in terms of drama. And what matches do football fanatics remember? The ones in which they fight for promotion until the last minutes.
Source: European Conference League
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