The scenes that followed Roma’s 1-0 victory over Feyenoord in Tirana on Wednesday night were nothing short of special. Jose Mourinho — who became the first man to lift all three of European football’s elite competitions — was in tears after the semifinal victory over Leicester City at the start of May. In Albania, he was once again as emotional as we have ever seen him, proudly holding aloft a symbolic number five, representing the number of European finals he has now won. The jury was certainly out on the Europa Conference League at the start of the season, with regular jibes regularly being aimed at Spurs, the team that qualified for the competition following their 7th placed Premier League finish last term. But following the Giallorossi’s triumph in the inaugural final, the stature of the competition has surely risen.
Next season, it will be West Ham United’s turn to test the waters of the continent’s newest tournament after they finished 7th in the English top-flight, two points behind Manchester United. It gives The Hammers a chance to banish the Frankfurt shaped ghosts from this campaign, who defeated the East London club over two legs in the Europa League semifinals to seal their place in the Seville showpiece.
Conference League consolation
The Conference League may feel like a step-down because, in theory, Champions League football was just a mere two games away from coming to The London Stadium. But some of the teams that will be competing alongside David Moyes’ side command respect. With rumoured additions such as Jesse Lingard, it seems that Moyes means business. If his men overlook their opposition though, they will end up just like Spurs, who suffered one of football’s greatest shocks as they exited the competition at the group stage following a 2-1 away defeat against NS Mura, the fourth-best team in Slovenia.
If you look at the final four from the inaugural Conference league; Roma, Feyenoord, Leicester and Marseille, there really isn’t anything to choose between those semifinalists and the semifinalists in the more glamorous Europa League, which were; Frankfurt, Rangers, West Ham and RB Leipzig.
So far, West Ham are one of five teams safely tucked into the playoff round for the upcoming competition. The other four are all from Europe’s supposed “Big 5.” And there are some teams with real European pedigree that will already be eyeing up more silverware in Prague’s Sinobo Stadium next May. None more so than Villareal.
The Yellow Submarine are fresh off a semifinal of their own, where they almost stunned Liverpool to reach their first-ever Champions League final. It wasn’t to be, but Unai Emery’s side are enjoying perhaps the greatest spell in the club’s history. They won the Europa League the season before, defeating Manchester United on penalties, and in Emery, they have a coach that has lifted continental silverware on four separate occasions.
Another threat to Declan Rice and his teammates will be Fiorentina. They finished just one point off sixth place, but still secured a return to UEFA competition for the first time in five years. With stars such as Jonathan Ikone, Gaetano Castrovilli and Nikola Milenković in their ranks, and with a transfer war chest following Dusan Vlahovic’s £73m move to Juventus in January, the Florence-based club will be hoping to add a first continental trophy for over 60 years.
France’s Nice and FC Koln of Germany round out the clubs that have so far qualified for the playoff round. Both have recently competed in the Europa League, with the latter memorably defeating Arsenal back in 2017, courtesy of a Serhou Guirassy penalty. Neither side has ever won a UEFA competition and both will be looking to get the ball rolling next season.
And let’s not forget the third-place finishers from the Europa League’s group stage will also be dropping down a tier. Last season, the likes of Marseille, PSV Eindhoven, Celtic, Fenerbahçe and Leicester all fell into the Conference League. If West Ham United plan on ending their 57-year wait for European gold, it will be no easy feat.
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