Villas-Boas & Benitez on the hunt for prizes & not just paydays

Given that a top-four finish is now seen as a trophy in itself, it is refreshing to see Premier League managers treat the second-tier competition as more than just a distraction
By Husmukh Kerai

The quarter-final draw for the much-maligned Europa League kept the three remaining English sides in the competition apart, maximising the chances of a Premier League representative capturing the trophy.

Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle all avoided each other in a low-key draw, and the trio will all feel that they are within touching distance of the Amsterdam final.

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And given how a top-four finish and the resulting Champions League qualification is now seen by some as a trophy in itself, it will be refreshing to see Premier League teams give Europe's second-tier competition the respect is deserves.

Former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was never taken by the tournament, branding it a "killer" and a "nightmare" that hampers domestic form.

It has always been the competition readily dropped by managers trying to juggle multiple pursuits, but now it seems that the deep-rooted indignation and suspicion that surrounds the Europa League is to be abandoned.

Despite important domestic challenges, Spurs, Chelsea and Newcastle have got this far by playing strong teams. Such is the fickle business of football, all three bosses are at risk of criticism further down the line should they not obtain their objectives, but it is about time the Europa League was given an equal footing.

Alan Pardew's side are just three points clear of the Premier League drop zone and are increasingly looking over their shoulders, but having gone over 50 years without a top-level trophy, fans are excited by the prospect of getting to the Amsterdam Arena.

Towards the other end of the table, Rafa Benitez and Andre Villas-Boas are doing their utmost to land the trophy despite intense pressure to clinch a top-four spot.

The Blues' interim boss has been accused of only being concerned by the short term, and that having something tangible to show for his Stamford Bridge tenure, like a trophy, is a priority for the Spaniard.

Unless he manages to secure a Champions League qualification spot on top of any trophies he is likely to be criticised, but it is completely understandable that he should give every competition his full attention.

Villas-Boas, meanwhile, is hoping Europa League success can help Spurs get the proverbial monkey off his players' backs.

Success in May would get his Spurs reign off to a winning start, replicating his success at Porto. It would also give the many of the Tottenham squad their first taste of success, and a platform to build on next season - much welcome after last season's disappointments.

Benitez and Villas-Boas are, after all, the only two managers left in the competition who have won it in the past, so it is not surprise that they respect the competition.

Unlike Redknapp, who left his star players out of his team selection and elected to field inexperienced youngsters for their "crazy trips all over the place", Villas-Boas has more enthusiastic.

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"The profile of the competition is raised in other countries, but not England. I don't understand it," he said back in October.

"I respect the competition. I certainly think it is viewed as a punishment in England and I cannot understand why. It is a traditional trophy."

His outlook is mirrored across London. Chelsea are in the midst of five games in the space of 13 days, and could be forgiven for easing up on at least one of the three fronts they are currently fighting on.

But it is not only Benitez and the fans who are excited by the prospect of going all the way in the Europa League and FA Cup.

"We're only interested in winning trophies, when you retire no one remembers that you finished in the top four," insists Demba Ba, even though he is cup-tied for this competition.

Finishing in the top four has been the be all and end all for Premier League clubs for a number of years now.

Arsene Wenger's stance on how fourth place is better than a trophy riles the supporters who want memories of a cup final triumph over an end-of-season cash settlement.

So seeing sides hark back to the now old-fashioned desire to win, whatever the competition, is more than welcome.

And after a disastrous Champions League campaign from the English clubs, where none of the four sides made the last-eight for the first time in nearly two decades, Chelsea, Spurs and Newcastle are also doing their bit for the country's Uefa co-efficient.

Italian sides in particular have long shunned the competition, even more so than their English counterparts, and that has helped lose them a Champions League qualification spot though Serie A.

But it finally seems that Premier League managers are taking the Europa League seriously, and that can only be a good thing for the English game.

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