As the Eindhoven giants prepare for another Europa League campaign, Ryan Ferguson explains why the incentive to compete is greater than ever.

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de jong rinjThis evening, PSV will take to the field against Estoril in Eindhoven, signalling the start of the club’s 41st consecutive season of European football, the joint-second longest streak in history, equaled by Porto and Benfica and bettered only by Barcelona. A prestigious achievement, this speaks to a bygone age of Dutch domination on the continent; an age when PSV, along with Ajax, viewed lengthy runs in UEFA competition as a divine birthright. Now, we live in a very different reality, with fans clinging to blind hope of success yet understanding, deep down, that football’s prevailing economy makes it highly unlikely.

Ten seasons ago, PSV soared into a fabled Champions League semi-final, in which they pinned AC Milan to the ropes but suffered a late sucker punch; twenty-seven seasons ago, they beat Benfica on penalties to hoist as champions the European Cup; and thirty-seven seasons ago, they triumphed over Bastia to win the same UEFA Cup in which they’ll partake this campaign.

Such continental success helped form the club’s identity, define it’s scale and inspire it’s preoccupation with winning, but, in recent years, those core principles have been somewhat obfuscated. In the past three seasons, PSV have failed to advance from the Europa League group stages, losing, along the way, to comparative minnows such as Chornomorets, Ludogorets, and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. Of course, this represents the sixth consecutive season without Champions League football in Eindhoven, a city growing begrudgingly accustomed to hosting clubs like CRF Cluj and Debrecen rather than Arsenal and Internazionale.

At present, this is a holistic trend throughout Dutch football, which, though highly competitive domestically, has neither the resources nor the depth to consistently trouble Europe’s elite echelon. Whilst AZ reaching a storied Europa League quarter-final bucked the trend last season, humble Eredivisie clubs are generally finding it ever more difficult to compete with their richer rivals from larger leagues. Ajax have authored a few giant-killings in the contemporary Champions League, but Hiddink’s PSV remain the lone Dutch semi-finalists this century. Feyenoord won the 2002 UEFA Cup, but have been entirely ordinary in the ensuing decade. Last season, Vitesse and Utrecht failed to make the Europa League group stage following qualification defeats to teams from Romania and Luxembourg. It’s been a struggle.

Oftentimes, Dutch clubs have viewed the Europa League with haughty derision, treating it as a hindrance to grander plans. Sure, it’s less glamorous, less prestigious and less profitable than the omnipotent Champions League but, after six years meandering the wastelands of despair, PSV, in particular, cannot afford to dismiss any competition. The club with 32 major titles encrusting its history has won only a solitary KNVB Cup in the past five years. Accordingly, pressure has mounted, and it’s time to deliver. PSV is a sporting institution founded on the idea of victory and, as it’s incumbent steward, Phillip Cocu has a duty to attack every competition with that intention, especially in the context of recent failure.

Moreover, this sense of urgency is further heightened by the availability of a 2015/16 Champions League berth for the 2014/15 Europa League winners. The sudden removal of Champions League football, with all its accompanying revenues and power, was a bedrock cause of struggle at PSV, a club which viewed perennial participation in the elite competition almost as a foregone conclusion. Accordingly, the Eindhoven giants have spent the past six years attempting, through fiscal restructuring and philosophical alterations, to find an organic route back into the Champions League. Winning the Europa League opens another avenue, for a club that can’t afford to demean any and all suggestions.

Obviously, doing so is notoriously difficult. UEFA’s bridesmaid tournament adheres to a rigorous schedule, with more games, and more games in obscure and hostile places, than any other in Europe. This season, it promises to be particularly difficult, with traditional contenders such as Tottenham, Napoli and Sevilla viewing it, much like PSV, as a passage to the Promised Land bypassing the hectic and overcrowded domestic leagues from which they hail. Similarly, Internazionale will be strong; Fiorentina and Villarreal are wily operators at this level; and clubs such as Everton, Wolfsburg and Borussia M√∂nchengladbach have the potential to charge from distance. When coupled with a quota of teams tumbling from the Champions League during the knockout phase, one begins to appreciate the dangerous and difficult Europa League landscape.

Naturally, PSV must concentrate on the first hurdle; they must focus only on beating what’s in front of them. In addition to the aforementioned Estoril, who qualified by virtue of finishing behind the Big Three in Portugal, PSV will cohabit Group E with Panathinaikos and Dynamo Moscow. Whilst far more intriguing than in recent campaigns, such a group again poses something of a dilemma for Cocu, who must attempt to balance this demanding Europa League involvement with the club’s greatest chance to win the Eredivisie in a number of years.

At present, PSV sit joint-top with PEC Zwolle, having procured twelve points from the first five league games, compared with Ajax’ nine and Feyenoord’s measly five. However, Cocu’s men, ever the dutiful travelers, will fly 9,100 miles to and from European games, compared with just 7,700 for their Amsterdam adversaries, who’ll play in Barcelona, Nicosia and Paris, and 7,400 for their rivals from Rotterdam, who face away games in Seville, Rijeka and Liege. We’ve seen in the past how such additional travel, despite top quality passenger jets, can confound physically and, more importantly, psychologically. PSV must weigh the risk before embarking on an all-out assault on Europe.

It would be undoubtedly thrilling to witness Georginio Wijnaldum lift the iconic UEFA Cup in Warsaw next May, a real once in a lifetime dream for any fan. Yet, ultimately, the decision whether to compete wholeheartedly or conserve energy for a very promising league campaign rests in the hands of Phillip Cocu. In the end, he must elect the route that’ll best yield the silverware and Champions League place so intrinsic to his continued survival as PSV coach.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)