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Beyond the pomp, Europa League’s problems on display in Amsterdam

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Many of Europa League’s problems were laid bare on Wednesday, and while moments after the tournament’s high point seem an ill-opportune time to address those concerns, there aren’t many other points on the calendar when we’re willing to consider Europa. For many teams in the competition – small clubs in top-heavy leagues that have little chance of ever making Champions League — it’s a great tournament, one that gives them opportunities, opponents, and exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have. And UEFA tosses in some money, too. For other teams, however, the tournament is a conciliatory obligation, one in which they’re used as a pawn to enhance the competition’s spurious legitimacy.

Thus was have today’s final. Chelsea was only in it because they flamed out of Champions League. Same with Benfica, who didn’t have Chelsea’s excuse of having played in a difficult group. They failed to beat out Celtic for the knockout round spot from their Champions League group. Why would anybody create a competition where two of fall’s underachievers are competing for honors in the spring?

If you’re reading this site, that’s probably not news to you, but as you see the likes of John Terry and Rafa Benítez celebrate today’s win, keep their accomplishment in perspective. Today was a battle between two teams for whom Europa League will never be a preseason goal. This, as the abused yet accurate metaphor explains, is to European soccer what the National Invitational Tournament is to NCAA basketball. Since everybody – from the fans, to the coaches, to the players – knows it’s “the other tournament,” the stakes are never going to justify the pomp.

That attitude was apparent through most of today’s match. Yes, it was very entertaining at the end – 10 minutes of back-and-forth action that almost talked you into an extra 30 – but for most of the day, the match was drab. Benfica’s midfield controlled much of it. Chelsea didn’t care. A goal off a long ball; a penalty kick – it wasn’t exactly captivating stuff. Though the tactical battle in the midfield added a somewhat cerebral (or, philosophical) element to the game, that intrigue was undermined by a lack of intensity. Call it cagey, if you want, but it was still a problem, one that was only corrected in the final moments.

All of which goes back to the competition’s main problems. Not enough teams that care about it, especially those which are relegated to it from Champions League. And when those teams enter the competition in the Round of 32, they are often superior to those competing in group stage, creating a continuity issue that begs potential viewers to discard the tournament’s initial rounds and only invest once the apathy.

Those favorites aren’t apathetic forever. Eventually, they convince themselves there’s something in winning a trophy. They delude themselves into believing an honor they didn’t care about six months earlier is worth the champagne and theatrics. I still don’t understand the psychosis behind this.

If Chelsea and Benfica weren’t today’s finalists, we might have seen a more spirited game – a contest between two sides that didn’t have to come to terms with their newly deflated status. If Europa League were left to those teams who could really use the competition – those who aren’t in Champions League and aren’t likely to get their any time soon – we could see sides that treat this match like an honor.

So give this tournament to the teams that want it. No more Champions League back doors, and no more looking toward the occasional big name entrant as a way to raise the competition’s profile. It’s more important to have compelling matches in a tournament with competitive integrity. While that means we might not have a club of Chelsea’s profile in the final, we may, in the long run, end up with a competition capable of earning a profile of its own.

Premier League preview: Hull City vs. Chelsea

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  Eden Hazard of Chelsea (10) celebrates with Nemanja Matic (21) as he scores their first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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  • Hull has only won four matches vs. Chelsea (4-10-30)
  • Tigers have allowed nine goals in previous two PL matches
  • Chelsea looking to rebound following Arsenal blowout
  • Costa remains tied for league lead with five goals

Both Hull City and Chelsea come into the weekend on a poor run of form, giving both clubs plenty of incentive to push for a result.

The Tigers play host to Chelsea at the KC Stadium on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE 

Following a pair of impressive victories to open the Premier League season, Hull has come back down to earth as of late, losing three of its last five matches in all competitions. With nine goals allowed in its last two PL matches (losses to Liverpool and Arsenal), Chelsea enters the fray with another dangerous attack that the Tigers will have to be wary of.

Antonio Conte‘s Chelsea have ironically enough seen their form dip at the hands of the Reds and Gunners, respectively, as well. Last Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium wasn’t ideal for a Blues side that expects to be amongst the top four at season’s end.

Meanwhile, Diego Costa will have to continue to find the back of the net for Chelsea on a regular basis, after netting five times in the club’s first six league matches. The Spaniard has accounted for half of the squad’s offensive output, making the 27-year-old vital up front along with the likes of Eden Hazard and Willian.

INJURIES: Hull — OUT: Alex Bruce (achilles), Allan McGregor (back), Moses Odubajo (knee), Michael Dawson (knee), Brian Lenihan (knee surgery) | Chelsea — OUT: John Terry (ankle), Kurt Zouma (fitness)

What they’re saying

Hull City manager Mike Phelan: “What needs to be resolved is the terms of the deal. It keeps changing. One minute I think I’ve got something and the club are happy with it and the next minute it changes. So it’s just a case of thinking about all these new changes that are on the table and making a decision.”

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte: “It’s important not to forget the past, because the past is very clear. We finished 10th last season and that means there were problems. We don’t have a magic wand to change the situation in a few months. We must work hard together and we are doing this. We must understand that only through hard work can we close the gap.”

Prediction

The Blues have struggled to play complete matches for much of the season, and this road fixture won’t make things easy for Conte and co. That said, Chelsea will surely be motivated to come out and give a strong performance following last week’s debacle against Arsenal. Hull 1-3 Chelsea

Watch: Lukaku gives Everton halftime lead after brilliant free kick

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Everton is finding its stride under Ronald Koeman, and goals like this one surely make it easy for the Dutchman to manage the club.

[ Watch Live: Everton taking on Crystal Palace on USA Network ]

With the match scoreless with a half hour gone, Phil Jagielka drew a questionable free kick outside the Crystal Palace penalty area.

From there, Romelu Lukaku did what he does best: score. Watch the video above as the Belgian striker curls his lovely set piece into the near post, giving goalkeeper Steve Mandanda no chance at making the save.

 

 

Premier League preview: Swansea City vs. Liverpool

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Jefferson Montero of Swansea City is challenged by Nathaniel Clyne of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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  • Swansea victorious 3-1 in May 2015
  • Francesco Guidolin‘s job status unknown
  • Reds have managed 16 goals in six PL matches this season

With their manager’s managerial position up in the air, Swansea City will host Liverpool on Saturday at the Liberty Stadium (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Swansea have picked up just four points in its opening six matches this season, leaving Francesco Guidolin and his side fighting to keep the Italian manager in charge. With Liverpool’s attack clicking to start the season and Swansea’s front group struggling, the Eagles will have to remain compact defensively to absorb the pressure.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE 

The Reds come into the weekend with the opportunity to move up to second place in the Premier League. Jurgen Klopp‘s side is firing on all cylinders in the attack, which has played a key role in Liverpool’s six-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

Liverpool’s depth at attack has surely become among the most dangerous groups in the PL, having scored 71 league goals since Klopp took off his role with the club in October 2015. Meanwhile, Daniel Sturridge has revitalized himself thus far in 2016, netting four goals and adding two assists for the Reds.

INJURIES: Swansea — OUT: Nathan Dyer (ankle) | Liverpool — OUT: Divock Origi (foot), Sheyi Ojo (back), Mamadou Sakho (fitness), Joe Gomez (achilles)

What they’re saying

Swansea City boss Francesco Guidolin: “It could happen. Maybe. But if we win on Saturday for the period of the international break you don’t speak any more about my position. But my position is not important, Swansea’s [league] position is important, and we must get a result.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp“We will be prepared for this game. We know about the quality of Swansea. We lost there last year after coming back from Villarreal. We had to make a lot of changes at Swansea last season. In that moment it was too much for us. Now we have no excuses. We have time to recover, time to prepare and time to analyse.”

Prediction: Liverpool simply comes into Saturday’s fixture as the hotter side. Unbeaten in its last six matches, Jurgen Klopp and co. only trail Manchester City this campaign for most finishes to this point (16). While Swansea’s slow start to the 2016/17 season hasn’t done them any favors, Liverpool’s current form certainly doesn’t make the challenge any easier.     Swansea 0-3 Liverpool

Watch Live: Everton vs. Crystal Palace (Lineups, Stream)

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17:  Romelu Lukaku of Everton celebrates scoring his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Everton and Middlesbrough at Goodison Park on September 17, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Everton host Crystal Palace on Friday under the (3 p.m. ET live on USA and online via NBC Sports.com) with plenty of intriguing battles all over the pitch.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

Ronald Koeman‘s Everton lost for the first time this season against Bournemouth last week, so he’ll be expecting a response from his Toffees. As for Alan Pardew, well, life is pretty good right now. Palace have won three-straight Premier League games and have a very good recent record at Everton, winning on two of their previous three visits.

Yannick Bolasie swapped Palace for Everton this summer and he could be key, as he has been in the past, to deciding this encounter.

In team news Everton’s star striker Romelu Lukaku is fit to start the game.

Palace start with Benteke up top an

Lineups

Everton: Stekelenburg, Oviedo, Williams, Jagielka, Coleman, Gueye, Barry, Cleverley, Barkley, Bolasie, Lukaku

Crystal Palace: Mandanda; Ward, Delaney, Tomkins, Kelly; Puncheon, Ledley, McArthur; Townsend, Bentered, Zaha