The Europa League is the freckled, buck-toothed little brother to the Champions League, tagging along behind its elder sibling and wishing it could hang out with the big, cool kids. But you can rely on Andre Villas-Boas to treat the competition seriously.
After all, the Tottenham Hotspur manager owes plenty to it. He won the Europa League with Porto in May, 2011, and was named Chelsea boss a month later. Still, his comments after Spurs lost to Basel on penalties yesterday were a little over-generous to his team.
Villas-Boas described his side as playing like “heroes” after they survived extra-time with ten men following the 90th minute dismissal of Jan Vertonghen. He said that Spurs had set an example to English soccer for the serious and enthusiastic way they approached the tournament. That’s to his credit, in contrast to other Premier League clubs down the years, which have often treated it as an excuse to field fringe players.
Now, Basel are a decent team and their stadium, St Jakob Park, is a tough place to go. But it’s hard to be impressed when the Premier League’s fourth-best side goes out to a club from little Switzerland, even if we allow for the absences of Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and William Gallas. And in the shoot-out, all four Basel penalties were excellent, while the feckless Emmanuel Adebayor sent his into the sky and Tom Huddlestone saw his effort saved.
Tottenham had even held the lead yesterday through Clint Dempsey before two moments of slack defending enabled Basel to take the lead, requiring a salvage operation from Dempsey again in the final ten minutes of the 90.
Fulham, a club with far fewer resources than Tottenham, beat Basel on the way to the Europa League final in 2009-10. So it’s hard to see Spurs as a model club here given that, as Villas-Boas says, they took the competition seriously – and still didn’t progress or play well.
Winning, either through clear superiority or battling beyond adversity: that’s how you set an example. Not by losing on penalties – English soccer’s had quite enough of that down the years.
After the agony of the shoot-out loss, today’s semi-finals draw had another slap in the face for Spurs – the hint of a great cross-London semi-final that might have been. Basel were drawn against Chelsea.