02 November 2022

The Bizarre Sado-machism of the Europa League...

We're through the looking-glass, people. With a chance to win our Europa League group on Thursday against FC Zürich, we're getting a clearer sense of just what we've gotten ourselves into here. Over the last five years or so, we've learned a lot more about Europa League and what it all entails. The more that we learn, the more that we realise that it's all an exercise of sado-masochism, replete with its delights and its devilries. On on hand, we get a chance to batter lesser opponents. On the other, we look forward to the arrival to the knockout stage of various Champions League cast-offs, many of them quite content just to get kits with a special patch on the shoulder, some of them also-rans resentful to have slumped to this admittedly less-glorious competition. While it would be fun to continue to feast on the former, the latter group pose exquisite challenges that tiptoe the line between inflicting and incurring punishment beyond one's wildest dreams.

While there are still a few Champions League group stage matches left to play, most of the necessaries have been sorted. We know that Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Barcelona, and Sporting are joining us, we're still awaiting verdicts on groups E, F, G, and H. In group E, it's still possible that we'll face one of AC MIlan or RB Salzburg...maybe even Dinamo Zabreg, but that would take some doing. In group F, we await word on RB Leipzig or Shakhtar Donetsk. Group G? Dortmund or Sevilla. Finally, in group H, we might have to welcome "mighty" Juventus or merely Maccabi Haifa. Given the pick of the litter, we'd probably do just fine against almost all of these would-be opponents. However, there are two that...well, there are two.

Both of them are absolute basket-cases, just as likely to batter you 6-0 across both legs as they are to collapse and lose by the opposite aggregate. I speak, of course, of Barcelona and Juventus, two giants of their domestic leagues as well as of the Champions League. At a risk of sounding sordid, they're just as likely to lay back and let you have your way with them as they are to ask you if you remember your safeword. Barça, after all, boast Lewandowski and do sit just one point behind Real Madrid in La Liga. They're psychophrenic, battering one opponent 4-0 one week before ekeing past another 1-0 the next. Juve are no better, sitting seventh in Serie A, following a similar pattern. Each of them, then is akin to that crazy ex with whom anything possible, either agony or ecstasy. 

Among the other Europa League opponents, there is of course Man U, who fit a profile similar to Barça or Juve. You never know which one is going to show up: the down-on-their-luck hot messes or the suddenly put-together hotties? Either is capable of anything...and that is both a threat and an invitation, a warning and a seduction. 

The good news? We're capable of beating any one of them across two legs. What's more, it's really just the three, and it feels somewhat better than coming up against squads that were clearly better than us (namely, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid). Then again, continuing the sado-masochistic trend, maybe some of these others are another Olympiacos or Sevilla in waiting, a sub club that nonetheless flips the power dynamic to dominate us?

Of course, although we've secured passage to the knockout stage, we do have to at least get a win or a draw on Thursday (unless PSV draw or lose, in which case we can just fail upwards anyway). In any case, this entire competition continues to offer that bizarre, even-intoxicating blend of punishment and pleasure. Oh, please, let if be more of the latter than the former. Please. The powers that be know that we've suffered enough without, um, enjoying any of it (unless that's your thing, in which case...). 

Enlighten me. Educate me. What lies ahead? Is it better than what lies behind?

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