Coming into this season, nobody really knew what to think about the Europa Conference League; fans already rip into the Europa League as the secondary competition enough as it is, even more so with giants of the game falling into it such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Inter Milan. What hope did the UECL have?
The knockout stage rules were confusing, the trophy’s appearance received flack for its design while many branded it a tournament which ‘rewarded failure’. But the competition would only be as big or prestigious as we wanted it to be, and in AS Roma, I’m not sure we could have gotten a better inaugural winner.
A giant of Italian football but one which has seldom competed for titles in the same way their counterparts have, Roma united an adoring fan base with a charismatic and endearing manager with a point to prove.
In Roma, we have a victor who cherishes this competition as their first ever major European crown, a manager who has treated it like the other major honours he’s won and a pair who have set a precedent going forward.
The idea of the competition started several years prior to its inception, with the method behind what many perceived as the madness to give clubs and nations who are routinely swatted aside in the qualification stages of the Champions and Europa League a chance to compete on the continental scene, while pitting them against established but beatable sides.
Plenty of familiar names took part in what was a hotly contested group stage; the 2019 UCL finalists Tottenham and 2018 semi-finalists Roma brought recent European pedigree, Partizan Belgrade and Feyenoord have both lifted the European Cup (with the Dutch side also winning two UEFA Cups), whie AZ, Vitesse, Union Berlin and Stade Rennais brought plenty of added quality.
But perhaps what added the greatest edge was the European royalty of the smaller nations; of the other 25 teams, ten of those are the record title winners from their nation, as teams from big cities with huge fan bases came up against one another to make UEFA’s most inclusive and diverse competition yet – something UEFA President, Aleksander Ceferin, promised upon its creation (more on that later).
Much like in the other European competitions, there were storylines aplenty to keep viewers entertained once the inaugural group stage took shape – as the relative obscurity of those involved peaked interest, rather than diminished the competition (especially when they played against the bigger sides).
Mura (a tiny side from north-eastern Slovenia who qualified for the competition after their first ever title win), defeated Spurs 2-1 with a 94th minute Amadej Maroša winner – dramatically claiming their first ever European points against the Londoners in the process. Despite continuing punctuation, Bodo/Glimt became a household name; thrashing José Mourinho’s Roma side 6-1 in the Arctic Circle before drawing 2-2 at the Olimpico.
Union Berlin were muscled out of the top two by Feyenoord and Slavia Prague – two of the sides from the lesser fancied leagues who toppled the status quo to eliminate one of the competition’s most fancied sides, while Spurs also fell at the hands of Stade Rennais and Vitesse.
Spurs’ exit was caveated by a 3-0 forfeit on the final match day, as the Lily Whites suffered from a bout of Covid-19 which left their squad on the ropes. Attempts to find a new date ahead of the New Years deadline were futile, and Antonio Conte’s men were knocked out without kicking a ball.
This didn’t reflect well on the competition; many felt that Spurs didn’t put up that much of a fight to stay in it, with some suggesting they didn’t want to be in to begin with, while others pointed the finger at UEFA for allowing a team to be eliminated for something out of their control.
It left a sour taste in the mouth and as the group stages came to an end, the complicated knockout phase began with a series of play-offs between Conference League and Europa League clubs. But, against the odds, this is where the competition gained its spark.
The teams which finished third in their Europa League group would then drop down into the UECL, playing the teams which finished 2nd in their Conference League group in a two-legged knockout play-off to reach the round of 16 stage – joining the UECL group winners. It added a layer of complexity, but delivered a massive boost to the competition as it entered its most entertaining phase.
The likes of Leicester, PSV, Marseille and Celtic made up half of the eight teams to drop down from the supposedly superior competition, but only three made it into the last 16. Celtic were hammered 5-1 by Bodo/Glimt as the Nordics claimed another major scalp, Vitesse, Slavia Prague and PAOK advanced past Rapid Wien, Fenerbahçe and Midtjylland, while AZ and Vitesse made it a Dutch quartet in the next round alongside PSV and Feyenoord.
It proved the UECL maybe wasn’t the drop down in quality many thought it would be from the already looked down upon Europa League; the group stages and the knockouts of the Conference League brought more goals than it’s bigger brother’s, while the first phase arguably ate up as many of the big boys as it’s more illustrious counterpart.
In that first knockout round, PSV, Feyenoord and Slavia Prague all battled it out for the European tie of the season, as Eindhoven recovered from 3-1 down to draw 4-4 at home to København, before hammering their Danish opponents 4-0 in the away tie. Feyenoord defeated Partizan Belgrade 5-2 in Serbia, before eventually going through as 8-3 winners, while Slavia ran out 7-5 aggregate victors over LASK.
Elsewhere, Bodo/Glimt continued to impress – beating AZ 4-3 over two legs to become the first Norwegian side this century to reach a European quarter-final, while PAOK’s win over Gent made them the first Greek side to reach the last eight since 2002.
This is what this competition was designed for; to give these smaller nations a chance. Of the clubs from the round of 16, only two rank inside the top 40 of UEFA’s coefficient rankings, while only five of the Europa League sides at the stage rank outside the same position. The underdogs were advancing and creating or recreating stories many of their fans would never have thought possible – that’s the magic.
The last eight saw Roman revenge, however, as Bodo/Glimt’s fairytale journey came to an end – but Kjetil Knutsen’s side lost just once in the whole competition and put Norwegian football on the map. Slavia Prague and PAOK also bowed out, but did their nations proud to go deeper in Europe than either of them had done in recent years.
Feyenoord – the last man standing from Holland’s globetrotting quartet – hosted Marseille in their semi-final first leg, with De Kuip ready for war. A ferocious, coliseum of noise greeted both sets of players, as the pair played out a pulsating game which saw the Dutch side edge out Jorge Sampaoli’s men by three goals to two.
The apprentice then hosted the master, as Roma travelled to Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester with the away side lucky to escape with a 1-1 draw – ensuring both ties were posed delicately on a knife’s edge heading into winner takes all second legs.
Much like in Holland, the Stade Velodrome was less a football stadium and more a cauldron of sound – 50,000 coming together on a Thursday evening for a competition which ‘didn’t matter’ ahead of its inception. It’s clear the fans cared, and while the 0-0 scoreline failed to live up to the first leg, it was still an enthralling contest which went right to the wire – but Feyenoord came out on top.
It would be their first European Final for 20 years, while elsewhere Roma were vying for their first in 31 years and Leicester’s first ever.
Once again, one of Europe’s most iconic stadiums was given the chance to host a big game and it didn’t disappoint – 65,000 ‘raucous Romans’ packed the Stadio Olimpico to host a game which José Mourinho described as ‘our Champions League’. As if it needed anymore clarity, this meant something.
Tammy Abraham – perhaps the individual Serie A story of the season – hammered home a towering header to send Roma to the final. As the Beautiful South song goes, we now knew that the destination of the trophy could be Rotterdam or Rome, but Tirana was the venue for the showpiece match.
The decision to take the cup to Albania didn’t help the competition’s cause at the start, however. The Arena Kombëtare hosts just 21,000 people and with UEFA’s tendency to give plenty of tickets out to ‘corporate’ (with more going to the bigwigs than fans of either Liverpool or Real Madrid for this year’s Champions League Final, for example), it meant that just 4,000 tickets went to fans of each side.
The perception also arises that the competition is going to a country without much – if any – footballing heritage, and is something gently creeping its way into football and sport as a whole.
Many will say Albania had as much of a right as anyone to host their first ever major UEFA event (which they do), but for the maiden final it seems strange not to have gone bigger – considering all three of the stadium’s opposition boasted a higher capacity, also.
They took it in their stride, though, and pulled out all the stops; Wednesday May 25th was made a public holiday in the country, while the city of Tirana became entirely pedestrianised as it prepared to host around 100,000 fans.
Next year, the final will take place in Prague’s Sinobo Stadium – a venue which holds just under a thousand fewer than Albania’s offering this season. It’s great to see major football reaching further, but it also feels that UEFA have undermined their own competition in the process due to the numbers they’re allowing present.
Nevertheless, Romans and Rotterdammers flocked to the country’s capital for a match that would define either season; Feyenoord had finished a comfortable third but were a way out the title picture by the end, while Roma enjoyed a resurgence in the spring but stumbled to the finish line, trailing Lazio and crucially Juventus in 4th to ensure one way or the other, they would be playing in the Europa League next year.
But the Roma faithful were praying it was through the UECL. For too long, fans have obsessed over qualifying for European competition rather than lifting titles – but the Conference League has put something new on the table and another chance for a team to chase silverware.
Of course, the UCL – and UEL to a lesser extent – brings money and some great European nights, but when you’re reminiscing to the younger generations in years to come, it’ll be the finals and the cups you’ll be itching to discuss – not the odd game against one of Europe’s superpowers. Roma wanted to win a first trophy in 14 years – and that’s exactly what they did.
Despite both sides earning praise this season for the way they’ve played, the game in Albania wasn’t exactly a bonafide football exhibition for the ages. It was cagey, stop-start, and perhaps perfectly suited to a Mourinho team.
In the 32nd minute, Gianluca Mancini hit an inch-perfect diagonal into the box which agonisingly grazed the head of Feyenoord’s Gernot Trauner into the chest of Nicolo Zaniolo. He brought it down, quickly weighed up his options before prodding the ball into the Dutch side’s net.
With the eternal weight of Rome on his soldiers, a player who has fought back from expectation, agony and setback finally had his moment. So often compared to the great Francesco Totti, Zaniolo had now written his own chapter in a book all about his fellow Italian.
Sixty minutes of anguish followed, but after waiting all their lives for a European crown, the travelling Romans were up for the fight. Rui Patrício and the woodwork saved them from a second-half onslaught, but as the game wore on, Mourinho’s expertise in finals told. Roma ate up time, broke at the right moments and alleviated the pressure when they needed to most.
He’s won finals in Seville, Lisbon, Gelsinkerkin, Cardiff, London, Madrid, Rome, Valencia, Solna and now Tirana – Roma were the UEFA Europa Conference League Champions, and Mourinho was a king of Europe again.
Of course, they were many bookmakers’ favourites to lift the title before a ball was kicked and many can point towards the fact that, despite everything, arguably the strongest side still won out – but there is more to it than that.
They narrowly topped their group and had to recover from back-to-back winles games against Bodo/Glimt to secure top spot. The Norwegians gave them more trouble in the knockouts while Vitesse and Leiecester proved worthy foes which Mourinho’s men only scraped past.
They travelled far and wide from Turkey, Bulgaria, the arctic circle, and the East Midlands to reach the final where Feyenoord put up a noble fight. The Conference League has been a globetrotting feast of football which, if you want to be cynical about it, doesn’t offer up the same quality as the other tournaments, but it’s brought plenty to the table.
A precedent has been set now; the Conference League means something and is to be taken seriously by those who compete in it.
Next year will see the likes of West Ham, Fiorentina, Villarreal, Köln, Nice, Gil Vicente, FC Twente, AZ, Anderlecht, Rapid Wien, Panathinaikos and so many more. A mouthwatering set of clubs which bring stories, headlines, and some of the best fans that European football has to offer.
The 2022/23 UECL campaign should prove to be another festival of togger, and something which breeds fresh hope to the underdogs for which top-level football was quickly growing stale.
By: James Pendleton / @jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Tottenham Hotspur FC