703: PREMIERSHIP: Would Europe set
by : Dave Thrilling
This weekends results mean that Birmingham City and Aston Villa remain firmly in the race for European football next season. While both clubs will relish the prospect of pitting their wits against some of Europe’s finest, will European football become just a burden to achieving a regular top six place?
Considering the recent long awaited return to the top flight for Birmingham and the disastrous season for Villa last year, it would be a remarkable achievement for either club to entertain UEFA Cup matches next season let alone the coveted Champions League fixtures. For Blues supporters, games against the likes of Barcelona would be a dream when trips to Grimsby are still fresh in the memory while Villa fans long to experience the thrilling battles against Inter Milan of the early nineties once again.
European football will no doubt bring in much needed revenue and potentially attract quality talent. However, both clubs are clearly overachieving this season and a poor domestic campaign next year together with a brief flirtation in Europe may well just set them two steps back after taking one step forward.
With relatively small squads it is essential for both clubs to strengthen in the summer in an effort to maintain a top ten finish. Blackburn and Everton fans will be quick to point out that raising expectations for one season doesn’t necessarily result in building on success. Indeed, Blackburn find themselves embroiled in a relegation scrap just a few months after crashing out of the UEFA Cup. This could easily happen to Villa or Blues next season depending on their success in the pre-season transfer market. A Champions League place quickly followed by a relatively poor campaign may put massive pressure on the shoulders of Messrs Bruce and O’Leary to retain their jobs.
Villa looked destined for a Premiership survival battle just before Christmas, but a rich vein of form aided by the capture of Nobby Solano and the goals of Juan Pablo Angel has yielded 29 points in 15 games. Villa fans should not get carried away. David O’Leary has performed miracles thus far and the clutch of promising youngsters at his disposal suggests the future is bright. However, the last two games have just highlighted their inconsistencies. A lacklustre home defeat by Blackburn was followed by an exciting display at Charlton. The derision shown by some of the home support at the Blackburn game demonstrates how expectations have suddenly risen which may be just too much to live up to if European football is grasped.
Birmingham are also in a period of transition. Steve Bruce is one of the brightest young managers in the country and has transformed the St Andrews outfit from perennial play off final failures to the brink of a European adventure. Blues success is based on team spirit and professionalism, yet they often lack the creativity to be classed as more than just a strong unit who are difficult to beat. The loss of on loan star Mikael Forssell could be the key to Bruce’s success next season. European football could persuade him to make the move from Stamford Bridge permanent but whether Birmingham can fulfil his ambitions of regular Champions League football at this point in his career is doubtful.
While the two West Midlands clubs are over performing, the garden is not quite so rosy at Newcastle and Liverpool. However, despite a frustrating season for supporters at St James Park and Anfield they still occupy the European places and an expected stronger season next time round could mean clubs like Villa and Blues having to rely on cup success for any chance of European football. Manchester City, Southampton and Blackburn who are arguably not much weaker in terms of squad, all failed miserably in Europe this year and all may wait years to get another chance.
It may appear ridiculous to suggest that European football is a negative thing. I am sure Karren Brady and Doug Ellis would laugh at such a statement. Birmingham and Villa may never get another opportunity for several years. If they do achieve the unbelievable, whether it will have an adverse effect in the long term remains to be seen.