The UEFA Europa League: The poor relation to the Champion’s League and a trophy the top clubs in Europe, if they are unfortunate enough to fall from grace and end up playing in the Thursday night saga, do not want to win. Most would have agreed with the above a few years ago, but in recent times has the Europa League attained more importance? In a footballing world where prize money, TV deals and qualifying for the Champion’s League are major factors in a top team’s success, maybe the once substandard, predominantly uneventful Europa League matches, are looking a little more attractive with the prize being more than just silverware for the trophy cabinet. Suddenly, Thursday night football has taken on a whole new excitement and significance.
Previously known as the UEFA Cup, the competition was renamed the Europa League in 2009 and in 2014 it was announced the winner of the trophy would qualify to play in the following seasons Champion’s League. This bonus was added in a bid to ‘up the ante’ of the Europa League, which may not have seemed overly significant by some at the time of the announcement, however, when considered logically, this extra prize has now become extremely useful, if not invaluable, to clubs vying for the top four positions in their domestic leagues.
In the last few seasons, the fight for finishing in the Champion’s League places in the Premier League has become a tight and an extremely combative challenge. Maybe three or four years ago we could easily predict that Arsenal, the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea would be competing for positions 1 to 4 but in more recent times other clubs have joined the list and this season it couldn’t be more closely contested. Chelsea are the only team this season that you can pretty much confirm are going to finish in the top four, if not become champions, but on this basis there are five or six teams all competing for three Champions League positions. Cue the Europa League.
With a matter of a just a few points separating the Premier League places two to six, two of the top clubs are going to miss out on finishing in the top four. The Champion’s League is where the top European clubs want to be, winning the Europa League could be the answer for Manchester United or Spurs if they end up being the teams to finish fifth or sixth.
What may have seemed like a ‘mickey mouse cup’ for United at the beginning of the season, or a costly hiccup by Spurs to end up dropping down into the Europa from the Champion’s League, could now actually be a blessing in disguise. Narrowly missed out on the top four? Win the Europa League and you will be laughing all the way to a Champion’s League place next season, sounds good doesn’t it? In theory, yes, and one both teams will surely be considering seriously, however, despite playing second fiddle to the Champion’s League, winning the Europa League could be considered the harder trophy to win. In order to become Europa League winners, the successful team must play a possible 21 matches, whilst traveling to more obscure far away cities and towns in Europe. It could be argued the matches are against tougher opposition in the Champion’s League, which in some respects is true, however, to win the trophy, only thirteen winning matches are required, seven less than the Europa League.
Money obviously plays a big part in today’s modern game of football. Winning silverware is fantastic, but clubs want to earn as much as they can from the competitions that provide the big bucks in prize money – something, compared to other trophy wins, the Europa League does offer. £23million is the potential earnings for the club that lifts the trophy, as well as the money from competing in the Champion’s League the following season. When you compare that to a possible £4millon for winning the FA cup, it is clear where the big money rewards lie in modern football, as well as the bonus prize of qualifying for Europe.
Not only could the Europa League play a big part for teams in the Premier League, it could be as equally important for clubs across the continent. The competition could play an interesting part in the Serie A season where only the top three teams in the league qualify for the Champion’s League. Florentina are fourteen points off third place in the league and after netting an away goal last week in their Europa match against Borussia Monchengladbach, are looking good to reach the next round and could be considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy. Ironically, even if they stay in their current eighth place in Serie A, they could play in the Champion’s League next season ahead of Roma, Napoli or Inter Milan who are all vying for second and third position assuming Juventus stay top.
In the French and Dutch leagues, Lyon and Ajax could be relying on winning the Europa League to play in the 2017/18 Champion’s League. Lyon are thirteen points away from third place in Ligue 1 with only the top three qualifying for the Champion’s League. In the Dutch league, only two qualify so as Ajax are currently lying in third place, they will be hoping to progress in the Europa League after a 0-0 draw away to Legia Warsaw last week.
Overall, despite there still being some teams in the Europa League that many football fans have never heard of let alone know which country they are from, the competition does appear to have grown in the last few years with many top clubs in Europe competing as well as the unknown ones in the competition. They have either dropped into the contest after finishing third in their Champion’s League group, or after missing out on the top positions in their domestic leagues. This can only make good viewing for fans, especially the neutral amongst us, if the top teams are drawn together in a Europa League tie, it could almost feel like a Champion’s League match, making the game worth a watch.
With the added incentives of big money prizes and a Champion’s League place thrown in for the overall winner, not to forget a nice piece of silverware and many tops teams competing, it is worth thinking twice before considering your Thursday nights as a non-footballing event. It would seem, the Europe League now has much to offer fans and clubs alike.