Equal Time: Despite Arsenal, Chelsea dominance in Europa League, La Liga still better
Original photo: Gerd Altmann
It's highly possible that Azerbaijan faces an imminent British invasion. Two London clubs are on course to meet in the Europa League final in Baku. Chelsea claimed an away goal advantage over Eintracht Frankfurt in a semifinal first-leg one-goal draw at the Commerzbank-Arena while Arsenal cruised to a 3-1 victory over Valencia at the Emirates.
If both break through, at least one European trophy will call England home for a year. As well as a coup for the Premier League, an Arsenal victory would ensure five English teams in the Premier League again even if the Gunners fail to finish in the top four.
The same can't be said for the Champions League where both Premier League representatives have it all to do in their semifinal second legs. Tottenham travel to Amsterdam trailing 1-0 to Ajax in their tie. Liverpool must prove that anything Roma can do they can do better by overcoming a 3-0 deficit to Barcelona at Anfield.
Spanish sides dominate the two European tournaments this decade. Real Madrid and Barcelona won the past five Champions Leagues while Sevilla and Atletico Madrid split six of the last nine Europa Leagues.
Four Premier League teams in the semifinals of the two competitions compared to just two La Liga sides is being heralded as a sea change by English fans. But is it just an aberration? It shouldn't be forgotten that Sevilla was pitted against Valencia in the quarterfinal or there might be two Iberian squads still vying for the crown rather than an Albion duo.
An additional argument can be made that the Premier League's ascendance in the Europa League is entirely mercenary in nature. When winning the tournament didn't offer passage into the Champions League, top English clubs ignored the competition, rotating youth and fringe players into their Thursday night lineups to stay fresh for the domestic battle. La Liga sides always honour the UEFA Cup/Europa League for the major trophy it is. They respect its prestige and play for the pride of winning. Premier League sides just want a piece of the Champions League pie.
That may change next season when Nuno Espirito Santo's Wolves enter the Europa League. Known affectionately as Portugal North for their heavy contingent of players from that country, the Midlands club won't just be there because they must. They will compete.
If they succeed, the argument that the Premier League is closing the gap with La Liga will be strengthened somewhat. Manchester United must also take the competition seriously next season, hoping to repeat their 2016 triumph as a route back to the Champions League. Arsenal and Tottenham's commitment could also be tested depending on how the final round of the Premier League plays out on Sunday.
For now, however, the ease with which Barcelona dispatched Manchester United and handled Liverpool at the Camp Nou contradicts the notion. So does Atletico Madrid's dominance over Arsenal in last year's Europa League semifinal. Until Premier League sides regularly defeat La Liga clubs, the notion the two divisions are on equal terms is just an illusion cooked up by partisan fans. Robert Frost might say English sides have miles to go before they can sleep on their Spanish counterparts.