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Difficulty and merit of regularly competing in Europe

Since the UEFA Europa League acquired its new name and competitive model in 2009, Athletic…

Difficulty and merit of regularly competing in Europe
Difficulty and merit of regularly competing in Europe
Jun 28, 201809:46

Since the UEFA Europa League acquired its new name and competitive model in 2009, Athletic Club has played 78 international matches, including the preliminary and qualifying rounds, which make it the team that has played the most matches in this competition. The regularity with which the red-and-whites have qualified for Europe in recent times, in six of the last seven seasons, besides being one the Club’s most successful cycles in its continental history entails a difficulty and a merit that should be analysed in more detail.

The key factor to be taken into account is the exhaustion the European competition generates among all the teams taking part, with a knock-on effect on the league performance of these clubs that are almost continuously playing three matches a week. This exhaustion is both physical and mental, affecting the players individually, with a significant rise in the number of injures, and collectively by reducing the number of specific, quality training sessions and forcing trainers to continuously rotate the squad. After long journeys and with hardly any time before the next match, the need to rest and recover becomes a priority over the wish to hold intensive training sessions designed to make specific preparations for the match against the next rival. The mental cost may also be taxing, at least insofar as the exceptional, namely, the European showcase, reduces the motivation in the routine, the domestic competition.

Faced with this imposing competitive pace that saturates the calendar for those teams playing in Europe, the size of the squad, figuratively speaking the depth of the cupboard, has a crucial role to play. Rotations are vital while hoping this does not mean impairing the team’s performance. Nevertheless, imponderables in the form of injuries also have an impact on these arrangements and alter any plans, especially in the case of serious ones. Some players appear in 60 official matches because of European toing and froing, and if this pressure is kept up for several seasons in a row it is no surprise that players suffer from injuries of greater or lesser importance that make the season that much harder.

To give just one example, Athletic Club faced Celta in the 2017/18 season after playing 14 more European matches, which besides the 90 minutes played in each match mean 14 whole weeks of preparation. This high demand also requires a serious analysis, in no way seeking excuses, but instead and above all to assess and, data in hand, award it the merit it deserves.

UEFA ranking

UEFA’s rankings provide an indication of the regularity with which teams qualify to play in Europe, as they add up the points scored over the past five seasons. This means that if a club does not play in a European competition for five seasons in a row, it may disappear from certain European rankings. At the start of the decade, in the 2010/11 season, Athletic Club was in 79th place, and rarely before had it fallen lower than 70th. Ahead of the red-and-whites were teams such as Celta, Getafe, Espanyol and Osasuna, thanks to their sporadic appearances in European competitions. Athletic is now in 34th place, and in the four preceding seasons it has always been higher than 40th. In La Liga, only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid and Sevilla have been better placed in recent years, with Athletic occupying a similar position to Villarreal.

The physical and mental cost in figures

Over the past decade, there have been a number of significant cases in which the teams qualifying for Europe have paid a high price for their European ticket.

In the 2009/10 season, Getafe ended up sixth in the table with 58 points, while the following season it was just one point away from relegation, after playing eight matches in Europe and being knocked out in the group stages.

Villarreal went from 62 points and qualification for the Champions League in 2010/11 to 41 points the following season, which were not enough to stay up, so it was relegated.

Levante also saw a drop in its performance after qualifying for Europe following an extraordinary season in 2011/12, although it managed to avoid relegation, which was not the case for Betis. This team from Seville fell from 56 points, which qualified it for the UEFA Europa League in the 2012/13 season, to 25 points the following year, where it ended up bottom of the table and was condemned directly to the torment of the Second Division.

The following season, 2013/14, Real Sociedad also paid the price for European qualification and ended up 12th, following its seventh place the previous season.

In the last season played, 2016/17, it was Celta’s turn to incur the physical and mental cost of competing in Europe. Athletic also qualified for Europe and ended up in the same place in the table, recording 63 points and finishing seventh, 18 points ahead of Celta in the league. After knocking out Krasnodar and Genk, Celta reached the semi-finals where it fell to the future champion Manchester United. It seems clear that the European journey had an impact on Celta’s league performance.

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