Last week marked the return of the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious continental tournament in the world. It also saw the resumption of it’s less prestigious counterpart, the Europa League. Whilst the Europa League serves the purpose of being the second tier of European competition and the Champions League is obviously the holy grail, the gulf between the two seems to have widened in recent years.
The Europa League has always had its problems, the fact that it’s in the shadow of the Champions League doesn’t help. In all likelihood, the only people who tend to religiously follow the Europa League are the fans of the clubs involved. Obviously, due to Chelsea’s participation in it last year their fans would have had a keen interest in it. However, now that Chelsea have returned to the Champions League I doubt many of those same fans have continued to keep abreast of the Europa League. Certainly, there’s not much reason to. There really isn’t much at all to attract the neutrals. Even the truest football fanatic would struggle to find many reasons to watch games contested between two relatively unknown teams from Europe’s more obscure leagues.
Then there’s the problem that it has quickly become like the FA Cup/League Cup equivalent of Europe in the sense that it’s not held in particularly high regard by the (few) big guns. Chelsea, to their credit, took the competition seriously last year and won it. However, due to the Europa League being of a low priority for most of the stronger teams in the competition, they use it as a chance to rotate their squads and as a result it’s far less of a spectacle than what it might potentially be. Spurs were beaten by Ukrainian outfit Dnipro on Thursday night having played with an eleven that was strong but by no means first choice. For those who don’t have a squad the size of Spurs, the Europa League seems to be more of a hindrance. Swansea have struggled in the Premier League this year far more than in their first two seasons and this has coincided with their participation in the Europa League. Last season, Newcastle found themselves in a relegation battle whilst attempting to compete in it.
The Europa League also has many more teams competing in it than the Champions League. Even the Champions League, due to the UEFA coefficients, has one or two teams in it than can be considered minnows. However, despite this, most of the 32 teams are very strong and truly are the best in Europe (and the world). On the other hand, amongst the 48 teams which make up the Europa League group stages, there aren’t many heavyweights. In fact the Europa League doesn’t become overly exciting until the third placed teams in the Champions League groups drop into the Europa League knock out rounds. Arguably, all eight of the teams that fit this description this year are more likely of winning the trophy over any of the 24 sides who have emerged from the Europa League group stages.
The way in which these teams simply filter into the Europa League as if they have a divine right to do so is quite controversial. These teams have been, by all accounts, knocked out of Europe yet they’re bizarrely given a second chance in the lesser competition. If anything, it just demonstrates perfectly that the Europa League is nothing more than the unloved counterpart of the Champions League. However, this does give the Europa League a much needed boost as, by bringing bigger names into the equation, it breathes life into the tournament. Without these teams getting that second chance, the calibre of the majority of the teams in the knockout phase would have been fairly weak and this wouldn’t show the competition in a very good light.
One positive aspect of the Europa League is that it is far more open than the Champions League. Obviously, the Champions League is a competition for the elite clubs and that elite will remain the same year on year. The favourites for the crown will always be Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid, possibly an English side and possibly the emerging force of PSG. In the Europa League, this isn’t the case as the participants are always changing. Some teams, through their domestic performances, make the step up to the Champions League whilst some underperforming sides (or sleeping giants) can head in the other direction. This is a fate facing Manchester United for next season. As a result, there are far more teams (and a greater range of teams) who can realistically win it or go far.
As a result, the Europa League has become a tournament which is made up of the following: Teams who’d rather not be in it, teams who aren’t good enough to compete in the Champions League and teams who have dropped out of the Champions League. Not the best of images really but unfortunately this is how it always will be. As a neutral, it doesn’t draw me in to watch games. I’ll only have a reason to show an interest in it if my own team manages to qualify for it. Essentially, as I’ve already mentioned, that niche audience is the only audience the Europa League is likely of getting.