Fans crave a European journey.
For the bigger clubs, it is the ultimate test not just of long-term stability but of simple competency, with higher and higher expectations the further they climb.
For those with newfound fronts on which to wage, the glory of new heights achieved are wetting the palate for a further push.
Unfortunately, for bigger and smaller clubs alike, European play can be more of a detriment than a blessing, and with further expectations as the sport is more and more commercialized and more money is pumped into the system, the burden becomes even more strenuous.
This is nothing new, of course. Arsene Wenger has struggled to keep his players fit for years amid European play, and while he has led one of the steadiest ships in Europe, that ship hasn’t found the promised land on either front in ages. Mid-table teams with the rare shot at Europa League play have often fallen on hard times.
This season, however, has given us even more reason to fear the big stage.
Yet again, teams atop the Premier League just so happens to be topped two-fold by teams in domestic competitions only. Chelsea might be thanking Jose Mourinho with this season’s form having won six straight and with time on the training field to rehearse Antonio Conte‘s methodology. Liverpool looked a threat last year under Jurgen Klopp, but with a run to the Europa League final, they were never able to get their heads above water in the league. Now, it comes full circle as they lead the league in goals. No doubt RB Leipzig’s meteoric rise up the Bundesliga table has been aided by their fresh roster.
Yet for the few reaping the rewards of fresh air, there are others who are falling behind the pack. Fixture congestion often vests itself most visibly in England, where top to bottom is every weekend. Tottenham so far has not let Champions League failure affect their league position, but with four draws in their last five Premier League games and a match against the on-fire Blues this weekend, things could come completely undone. Leicester City has put everything they have into their European push, making history week in and week out, but they are teetering on disaster in the league, just barely staying afloat two points above the drop. Manchester United, so parched for a return to Europe, has thrown far more into Europa League play than they normally would, and it has stalled their growth under Jose Mourinho.
In Italy, Juventus has always sported one of the deepest rosters to see them through the dual fronts, but other clubs aren’t so lucky. Roma has benefitted from an easy Europa League group, but even that is forcing Luciano Spaletti to rotate his midfield constantly, and he has four central midfielders all sporting at least 11 Serie A appearances and at least four European cameos, and a loss at surging Atalanta last time out – their third in league play, just one less than all of last season – has seen them lose ground. Napoli has poured plenty of spirit into the Champions League, and while they top their uninspiring four on goal difference, the Group B dogfight has left them in sixth amongst an admittedly crowded top of the Serie A table.
Even La Liga clubs, who often benefit from a top-heavy league, are feeling the effects. Atletico Madrid, often so powerful in recent years with a perfect balence between the competitions, has seen its league form slip while pummeling a relatively strong Champions League group. Diego Simeone’s squad beat Bayern Munich and twice brushed aside last year’s runaway Eredivisie champions PSV. Unfortunately, that has left them with three defeats in their last four league games, down in sixth and nine points adrift of the top.
The only club bucking the trend – and there always seems to be one – is Borussia Dortmund. Amid a Champions League group with Real Madrid and Sporting CP, the Germans have managed not only to see themselves top of the group, but also beating Bayern at their own game, sending them into a mini-tailspin after a massive win over the Bavarians. Even so, they sill sit adrift in third thanks to a rough October that can hardly be blamed on fixture congestion.
Navigating club and country used to be the most difficult hurdle for footballers to overcome. Now, it seems that managers are tasked with an increasingly formidable opponent – one forcing them to balance the club’s long-term health with the supporters’ desire to find short-term glory. It has never been an easy task, but it is proving an increasingly challenging foe each new campaign as the worldwide talent pool continues to grow.