When a club qualifies for the UEFA Champions League, it is met with roaring applause and elation by the fans and players alike but qualify for the Europa League and everyone passes it off as a nullified competition that is only going to hinder their season. So why is there is such a stark comparison between the esteemed heights of the Champions League and the ugly step-sister that is Europe’s forgotten tournament?
The tournament was founded in 1971 but rebranded in 2009 into the tournament we know and not so much love today. Until last year, there really was not much for the bigger clubs in Europe to love about the tournament. Fixtures are normally long and arduous, sometimes to distant countries in the far reaches of Eastern Europe and all that was offered in return was a much smaller prize than the Champions League or the alternative humiliation to a team whose players earn more in their day-time jobs than in football.
The round of 32 ties are played particularly for English teams at one of the busiest times of the year. Managers are juggling players like a red nosed circus clown does bowling pins in order to keep players fit for a Premier League game on the Saturday, Tuesday night FA-cup replay, a Thursday night European game and another game on the weekend before it all kicks off again a day later. How can you blame them for opting to finishing 7th rather than 5th in the league?
However, there are teams of course that benefit from this tournament, for the likes of Sevilla, Real Sociadad in Spain, mid-table sides such as Stoke and Southampton in the Premier League to name just a few. They are never going to challenge for first and on rare occasion the top 4, but this tournament gives teams like them a real chance at European glory. In fact, it has only been since last year that they have been rightly rewarded for such efforts.
Until then, all that went to the winners was a prize of around £4.5 million and a place in the competition the following year. This doesn’t seem much of a reward to me, beating the best of the rest surely earns you the right to go fight with the big boys the next year and the penny or should I say Million finally dropped and UEFA realised this. Sevilla were the first team to gain access to the group stage of the Champions League through winning the Europa League for the fourth time, the most of any side.
As far as the tournament goes for this year it offers a real chance to Manchester United and Liverpool who both look out of contention to gain access through the Premier League but still have a great possibility of qualifying. Of course, after Friday’s draw, one will be eliminated in the next round for sure as the legendary Premier League rivalry is translated onto the European stage. Manchester United fans should be drooling at the mouth over the prospect of winning the tournament and by doing so stealing the 4th Champions League spot away from either Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs or Leicester City.
As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp has already steered them to one cup final and who says they can’t get to another. The German’s expertise in Europe is a major part of why he was brought in and there is a chance; albeit a slim one, of achieving Champions League football a year ahead of schedule.
The Europa league; much like the FA cup, gives small teams the chance to go and face the big footballing giants. For teams in Romania, Slovenia or the Czech Republic; most of whom you have never heard of, they can go to Signel Iduna Park or Old Trafford and cause an upset. For FC Midtjylland for example, although the tie did not transpire the way they would have hoped, the supporters will have enjoyed the experience of a lifetime. The bigger clubs have come under scrutiny for not taking the competition seriously and have been punished by the smaller clubs.
Chelsea showed a great attitude when they got dumped into the Europa League the same year they were trying to defend their Champions League crown. After a poor group stage performance, they triumphed over Benfica in the 2013 final showing it was possible to maintain a title push and have a good run in the second-tier competition. The complete change of the formatting of both European competitions in 2015 will have serious implications for British teams most of all. Gone are the days of where your European pedigree gets you an easier draw and England will struggle to keep their 4th Champions League spot if Tottenham and Leicester fall down in both competitions next season.
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