THE EUROPA LEAGUE continues to have the added bonus of the winners qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. But the competition still struggles to gain credibility, largely due to the long shadows cast by the UCL. The solution is a slimmed-down UCL, adding quality and gravitas to the Europa, but TV and politics are unlikely to allow that to happen.
Looking at this year’s quarter-final line-up, three of the eight clubs are still in with a realistic shout of winning their domestic titles: Ajax, Anderlecht and Besiktas. The average position of the clubs involved is fifth, compared to third in the Champions League, which is about the right ratio. The league titles of Spain, Germany, France and Italy will all be won by one of the UCL last eight.
Half of the quarter-finalists are from the “big five” leagues, which is about standard for the past five years. Last season saw five of the eight from these leagues. There’s no shortage of big names this season, however, with Manchester United and Ajax both former winners of the Champions League and Anderlecht and Schalke both winners of European prizes in the past.
Game of the People has a personal interest in the final being an enticing proposition. We will be covering the decider in Stockholm on May 24.
There is a growing feeling that Manchester United will be going all-out to win the Europa League this season. Firstly, it is in the nature of manager Jose Mourinho to try and accumulate silverware. He’s already picked-up one trophy in the form of the Football League Cup and United are still trying to make the top four, but winning the Europa, which may be easier than securing a UCL qualifying place, could offer the best chance of playing in Europe’s top competition. Mourinho has said that the Europa is now a priority and that he does not want to be restricted to chasing a top four place. “I want us fighting for trophies”. United’s clash with Anderlecht is going to be interesting and it is difficult to see the Belgians ousting Mourinho’s side. But as Tottenham have shown this season, it is easy to go out cheaply in Europe.
Anderlecht finished the first stage of the Belgian league on top and they’re now in the championship play-off round. All eyes will be on their sought-after midfielder Youri Tielemans, who may be on his way to Monaco this summer.
United may well be favourites but Lyon are possibly the toughest of the other contenders. They have Alexandre Lacazette in their line-up, a player that has been courted by clubs in England for the past couple of years. Lyon win or lose – they have won 17 of their 32 Ligue 1 games but they’ve lost 12. They have won at Monaco this season, so they have quality when they need it. Lacazette has scored 24 times and looks set to leave France at the end of the season. He’s 25 and has netted 96 goals in 200 Ligue 1 games. Needless to say, Arsenal are interested but he will cost around EUR 50m.
Lyon are playing Turkish leaders Besiktas who include former Newcastle and Chelsea forward Demba Ba in their squad. This is the third time they have reached a European quarter-final and they are on target to retain the title they won last season.
The tie of the round could be Ajax Amsterdam against Schalke 04. Netherlands v Germany. Ajax are in top form and have cut Feyenoord’s lead at the top of the Eredivisie to one point. Schalke are currently around mid-table in the Bundesliga. Ajax have lost just five games all season and are unbeaten in 11 home ties in Europe.
The last tie is between Celta Vigo of Spain and Belgium’s Genk. Celta Vigo have beaten none other than Barcelona this season, but they will meet Genk at a time when the club is threatening to leave its home city and move to a new stadium after a row with the local authority. Celta Vigo have been offered a 50-year license by the mayor but want to purchase the stadium, which is in need of refurbishment.
The Europa League needs some big names in the final to raise the profile and prestige of the competition. With eight clubs from seven countries, there’s more diversity in the quarter-final line-up than at any point in the last five years. A final like Manchester United v Ajax will not only appeal to a broad audience, it will also bring together two giants from the history of European club football. Faded grandeur, perhaps, but a reminder of what the concept of pan-European was all about.
Europa League – Quarter-Finalists, past five years