Much as it was unsurprising, it was still a fairly depressing spectacle. On Thursday night, Aston Villa and Spurs put out reserve teams for their UEFA Cup matches against CSKA Moscow and Shakhtar Donetsk, and they both paid a predictable price for it, crashing out of the competition. It was, as if it were needed, a further reminder that football long since ceased to be about winning matches or winning trophies. It’s hardly as if either club has been over-burdened with silverware of late. Villa and Spurs have mustered three cups between them over the last twenty years – two League Cups and one FA Cup. For clubs that, until the advent of the Premier League, were giants of the English game, it is a feeble total, but I wouldn’t expect to see anything doing anything about it any time soon.
The two clubs had different reasons for their actions. Aston Villa remain in with an outstanding chance of playing Champions League football next season. Fourth place in the Premier League has taken on a mystical quality in this respect. It has become the holy grail of football, and Aston VIlla will considering 2008/09 to have been an outstanding success should they end the season above Arsenal, and in a way they will be right. In another, slightly more tangible way, however, it hasn’t been. They haven’t got a sniff of actually winning anything, and we’re not even into March yet. Their supporters may be forgiven for wondering why they bothered last season. It was, after all, a reasonable achievement for them to finish in sixth place in the Premier League.
For Spurs and Harry Redknapp, the problem was a different one which led to a similarly depressing outcome. They play Manchester United in the League Cup final at Wembley on Sunday, and Redknapp was reported to be furious at the concept of having to play a cup final three days after a European match. He played a weakened team against Shakhtar Donetsk and paid the according price. It’s probably fair to say that, on balance, Spurs have got a better chance of playing European football next season from winning the League Cup final if they would have from getting to the final of the UEFA Cup, but the irony of getting knocked out of a competition in order to win a cup to get into the same competition again next season is striking. Spurs have had a disastrous season in the Premier League and by Monday all that will be left for them to look forward to will be a grim war of attrition in order to keep their place in the Premier League. One might have expected a betting man like Redknapp to give his all in both the UEFA and League Cups to try and bring some silverware to White Hart Lane in order to cover up an unsuccessful start to his time at Spurs, but Redknapp chose to see things differently.
Part of the criticism for this lies with UEFA themselves. They have put the league concept into both of their major competitions, and it has been to the detriment of both. Even more than the Champions League, the UEFA Cup group stages seemed to go on forever, played out front of half-full grounds on television channels that bought the matches because the seriously big media players weren’t interested. Rather than noting this misjudgement and changing it, UEFA has taken it upon itself to change the name of the UEFA Cup from next season to the Europa League, which doesn’t indicate that the reform that the competition needs is going to bring any significant improvement. For all of this, however, the teams that enter these of the competitions know what format they will take and what dates the matches will be played upon before a ball is kicked in August. If Premier League clubs decide that the UEFA Cup is a bit too much of an effort for them again, they should be expelled from the competition and replaced with someone that actually wants to be in it in the first place.