UEFA Europa League: Playing second fiddle

Nobody really cares about the UEFA Europa League, do they?

Despite multiple identity changes to reduce the gap between the first and second tier competitions in Europe, UEFA is still unable to present the UEL as an attractive entity on its own. Watching the draw for the round of 32, I found my attention straying elsewhere while Gianni Infantino and Giorgio Marchetti rattled on about the technicalities of the draw.

Even during the draw, keeping up with which team can play whom was pretty ……..uninteresting, seeing as every page of graphic on the groups had a second one to scroll down to. Unlike paper, television is a visual medium that is better served on one platter, minus the second and third installments of information. I don’t think the problem is the excess in number of teams playing the competition though. Indirectly the competition has always been treated as the distant cousin of the UEFA Champions League. Definitely not in the same context as a sibling.

General views of trophies and yearbook - 2011 UEFA Super Cup
The Europa League has existed in the current format since 2009. Its predecessor the UEFA Cup, survived for more than 30 years throughout multiple modifications. Again this was perhaps in order to make it more attractive to teams that fail to qualify for the UCL and those who fail to progress beyond the group stage of the competition, as a consolation. I wonder how long will this format last.

Indirectly the teams which get to play in the competition are literally the first losers. Nobody likes to be considered a loser. And that’s one area that cannot be changed in this competition. It’s a collection of almost have-beens, teams that failed to make it all the way. As for the teams who win domestic cups to qualify for this competition, if it’s a team which finished outside of the top 10 in the season, then it’s a bonus. If it falls to a team which also finished in the top 3, the other finalist will thank their lucky stars for the break.

In the end, it usually ends up being an unwelcome distraction from pursuits in the league the following season. Remember Newcastle United in the 2012/13 season? They went all the way to the quarterfinals of the Europa League but only finished 16th in the Premier League. There was also Eintracht Frankfurt. After qualifying for the Europa League in 2012/13 by finishing 6th, they slumped to a 13th place finish the following season. A result of focusing on the Europa League perhaps? They only made it to the round of 32 there.

Looking at this season’s knockout stage though, I have to admit it isn’t half as bad. The current holders Sevilla are still in there and they have to battle with another top 5 team from the German Bundesliga, Borussia Monchengladbach. You have to admit that if 80% of the fixtures in this round were like that, perhaps more people will pay attention to the tournament. Gladbach are placed higher than Schalke and Borussia Dortmund currently in the German league, in case you were wondering. That should say a lot. The other German team in this competition is second place Wolfsburg. It will be very interesting to watch how much priority Dieter Hecking is willing to give his squad here, as they vie to at least challenge Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga.

There are 3 English sides still in contention too. Everton has the easiest draw on paper, traveling to Switzerland to take on Young Boys. Tottenham have a date with Fiorentina, a first for both clubs. Liverpool on the other hand host Besiktas in the first leg of the competition. It isn’t the first time both will play against each other. With that being said, I am expecting all 3 teams to sail past this stage of the competition and go all the way to at least the quarterfinals. Yes, even Liverpool. The math is pretty simple. If 13th placed Everton are able to beat 2nd placed Wolfsburg convincingly, then the English teams must have an edge over their European counterparts.

The Serie A is represented here by 5 teams, the most. What does it say about the state of Italian football with only Juventus flying the flag in the UCL? Napoli have to travel to Turkey for their first leg encounter with Trabzonspor. The first word that comes to mind upon hearing about this fixture was fiery fans. AS Roma and Torino play host to Feyenoord and Athletic Bilbao respectively, while Inter Milan have to travel northbound for Scotland to play Celtic. The last time both clubs met was at the 1972 European Cup. Again, it’s a fixture that’s quite tantalizing, surely.

The Spanish La Liga is also represented by 3 sides in this round of the UEL. Besides holders Sevilla and Bilbao, Villarreal are also expected to progress past this round. They have to host Salzburg in February 2015. The 1993/94 UEFA Cup losing finalist is a spent force these days when it comes to their battles in Europe. But the Yellow Submarine are doing well for themselves in La Liga. They are poised to end the calendar year in the top 6, still within grasp of sealing a spot in Europe next season.

The added incentive this year is that the winner of the Europa League will play in the Champions League next season. So you can bet your bottom dollar, every team still in the running will be eyeing up the back door entry aka golden ticket to the first tier tournament come June 2015. It’s a great move on UEFA’s part but how will it fare in 2015/16 when there’s no defending champion to compete against because they’ve been given a pass to play with the richer boys? How much of a difference will it make? And most importantly, how will it make the competition more attractive? I think it could.

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

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