It’s always hard to write one of these pro-Europa pieces without aiming a sly-dig in the ribs at the twitch-hiker over in charge at Loftus Road these days, but as we look forward to this evening, it’s ever so hard to resist, isn’t it?
There’s nothing better than throwing the words, ‘big’, ‘European night’, ‘White Hart Lane’ and a poor Italian pun all in one sentence. But, bellissimo – isn’t this what it’s all about?
Our match tonight will of course evoke memories of that magnificent Champions League encounter and it seems a little bizarre to think over two-and-a-bit years have since passed since we beat the then Rafa Benitez’s Inter Milan that night.
But although the Europa League is of course never going to replicate the buzz we all got from dining at Europe’s most elite footballing table, we were bereft of the opportunity to dabble in even a cheap imitation of those great nights of the 2010-11 season. And as we’re finding out this term, it’s not much of a cheap imitation at all.
Even though the side weren’t necessarily at their best, the last two legs of the competition against Lyon provided us with some wonderful entertainment. Yes, the early phases of the group stage hardly set the world on fire and they weren’t the most enthralling spectacles, either (Maribor away anyone?). But as the competitions heated up, so with it has the general feeling of anticipation and warmth for the cup amongst supporters.
The reward for actually taking it seriously this season? A genuine shot at silverware and a glamour tie against one of the biggest names in European football.
Let’s not muck around here; qualifying for the Champions League still remains at the forefront of the club’s effort to grow and it’s the competition the club, the board, the manager, the players and the fans all want to participate in. But as important as it is ensuring your players are fit for the ongoing push for a top four finish, there’s more to life than simply slogging it out in the Premier League.
It feels terribly cringey digging out Blanchflower’s musings about the glory game and doing things in style, but is that not what a massive cup tie away at the San Siro encapsulates? There’s now a genuine buzz about this competition with all connected with the club anticipating our away day in Italy and the chance to, dare we say, even add to the club honours list.
Yet it feels so long since an occasion like this, not through simply the time has passed, but perhaps our own, occasionally outdated views towards the occasion. Massive ties against the likes of Valencia, Atletico Madrid and Schalke all could have been waiting for us in the competition at this time last year.
Instead, we decided to sack it off, in no small part thanks to the fielding of a half-asked team at home to PAOK, so we could save our energy for a home fixture against an extremely poor Bolton Wanderers side.
Tonight’s going to be a fantastic occasion as the away leg will be and one that all of us have been looking forward to. Worth remembering that next time you hear the Europa League described as an ‘inconvenience’.