Double crack at Europe may be the business for Motherwell
FOR all the excitement generated by Motherwell’s Champions League qualifier against Panathinaikos, there was something of the phoney war about it, an obligatory joust between two mismatched clubs who would later find opponents more in keeping with their stature.
Motherwell, who lost that tie 5-0 on aggregate, were only allowed to play in it because of the Rangers crisis. This week, the Lanarkshire club, who finished third in the SPL, slip down a rung on the continental ladder to set their sights on a more realistic target when they play Levante for a place in the group stage of the Europa League.
Against a team who finished sixth in La Liga, Motherwell will still be the underdogs, the peely-wally Scottish lightweights up against seasoned Spanish campaigners, but they did enough last season to feel like they belong in the Europa League play-off round, the first leg of which will be held at Fir Park on Thursday.
Sure, they were lucky to taste the Champions League, and fortunate to avoid the Europa League preliminaries as a result but, if they can beat Levante over two legs, an achievement that is not out of the question, they will have secured themselves a place in the group stage on merit.
Tom Hateley, their full-back, is keen to dispel the myth that they are lucky to be mixing in such cosmopolitan circles. “It wasn’t through luck that, over the course of 38 games, we finished where we did. We deserve to be playing some sort of European football for that. It would be a massive thing for this club if we could get into the group stage, thoroughly deserved, and a heck of a reward for the work we put in last season.”
While the Champions League qualifier, always destined to be short and sweet, was not the financial jackpot many liked to suggest, a place in the group stage of the Europa League, guaranteeing Motherwell six more matches in the competition, would earn them a seven-figure sum with which to secure their medium-term future.
“The minimum you would imagine it to be worth is somewhere between a million and a million-and-a-half pounds,” says Leeann Dempster, the Motherwell chief executive, pictured below.
“For a club like this, with an annual turnover of between £4.5m and £6m, that is a significant reward. We are looking for ways to stabilise the club. The Well Society is one. Players’ transfers is another. But success on the pitch is obviously the way we would like to do it.”
Progress would also enable Motherwell to strengthen their squad, although the transfer window will be almost closed by the time the second leg is completed. “We’ve got a game on Thursday so let’s hope we get a good indication from that,” says Dempster, dropping a big hint to her manager, Stuart McCall.
He will be delighted with any kind of first-leg lead, never mind one that suggests overall victory. Last season, Levante had the audacity to lead La Liga thanks to a run of seven straight wins, including one against Real Madrid. The 2012 Europa League final was contested by the teams who finished sixth and seventh in the Spanish top flight the year before.
That said, Levante are no giants of the Spanish game. This, in fact will be their first taste of European football. In their 103-year history, the side from Valencia have been in the top division only six times and have won a trophy only once. Not long out of administration, they performed last season’s miracle with a cheaply-assembled group of over-achieving veterans. They have since sold their star player, striker Arouna Kone, to Wigan Athletic.
Better still, from McCall’s point of view, they have not started their season yet. Kenny Black, his assistant manager, and Bobby Jenks, the club’s chief scout, have travelled to watch them open their campaign with a home match against Atletico Madrid tonight.
McCall’s hope is that they will need more than one competitive outing to be ready for a trip to deepest, darkest Lanarkshire.
“We have to look for every advantage we can, and I’m sure their manager would say they would have liked a bit more competitive action before they went into this. We were in that position against Panathinaikos but I didn’t look upon it as a disadvantage as they were in the same boat. This time, we will have had two Champions League games and three league games under our belt.
“I always think you need four or five games to get into your stride. They won’t be as sharp as they will be in a month’s time so we have an advantage in that regard.”
McCall believes that his team will be the better for their experience in the Champions League qualifier. “Realistically, not many people gave us a chance against Panathinaikos, and there was a gulf in class in the end, but we’ll take a lot of positives from it. I think 2-0 flattered them in the first leg, and for 45 minutes over there, we gave as good as we got.
“I always believe that you’ve got to try to win your home games, but you also have to guard against being kamikaze.
“The atmosphere against Panathinaikos at Fir Park was terrific, and sometimes you get a bit caught up in that, with everyone flying forward. That’s when you get picked off, and the game’s over. We need to be aware that we’re not just playing with out hearts, we’re playing with our minds.”
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