THE EUROPA League struggles to win public acclaim until the very last stages, but one look at this season’s list of entrants is a reminder that some big names are among the contenders.
Wolverhampton Wanderers may have been playing in the competition since early summer, but they have clearly been stimulated by European football coming back to Molineux. Wolves have successfully negotiated three rounds, scoring 19 goals in the process. Wolves were the club that ignited interest in the creation of European club competition, claiming they were the best in the world after a series of floodlit friendlies in the mid-1950s. This prompted French journalist, Gabriel Hanot, editor of L’Équipe to propose the launch of the European Cup.
Wolves, who also played in the first all-English European final in 1972, are just one of three English clubs who could easily lift the trophy in Gdańsk in May. Arsenal and Manchester United, who both missed out on UEFA Champions League will also fancy their chances, although the former’s tepid performance in the final this year perhaps suggested they were not totally focused on the game.
But these teams aside, there are plenty of clubs with a European pedigree in the Europa this year. As well as Manchester United, there are four others who have won the European Cup/Champions League: PSV Eindhoven (1988), Celtic (1967), Feyenoord (1970) and Porto (1987 and 2004). Then there are seven clubs who have been beaten finalists: Arsenal (2006), Borussia Mönchengladbach (1977), Eintracht Frankfurt (1960), Saint-Etienne (1976), Målmo (1979), Partizan (1966) and Roma (1984).
On top of that, there are another 12 clubs that have featured in a European final of some sort, including Sevilla, Lazio, Sporting Lisbon, Dynamo Kyiv, Rangers, Slovan Bratislava, Ferencvaros and CSKA Moscow. In total, 24 of the 48 group stage entrants have played in a final, that’s a relatively high percentage. Incidentally, of the 32 Champions League teams, only seven have not been in a final.
The Europa field has 12 clubs that were champions of their domestic leagues in 2018-19, a list that includes Celtic, Young Boys Bern, Slovan Bratislava and Ferencvaros.
On the face of it, the Europa League looks quite attractive, but why does it receive such a lukewarm reception? There are a number of reasons, and it starts with the insistence on Thursday night football. Players and managers are not keen, supporters are not over-enthused and it comes after two intensive days of Champions League football. It feels like the graveyard shift to some extent.
Secondly, the financial incentives for the Europa are way behind the Champions League. In the Europa, a group win is worth € 570,000 and a draw € 190,000 – in the Champions League, a win is worth € 2.7 million and a draw € 900,000. Winning the Europa will earn a club € 8.5 million versus € 19 million for the Champions League.
Thirdly, the venues of the finals, while a prestigious occasion for the city concerned, are often seen as second rate. Baku in 2019 is a prime example, especially given the two teams were from London.
Lastly, the competition is too big and hence, at the group stage, the quality suffers – the latest draw highlighted just that. UEFA’s mission of making European football available to all might seem like an act of benevolence, but the cynics would argue that it is about squeezing as much money out of the event as possible. Europe needs the Europa League, pan-European football cannot exist on the Champions League, a competition that is overwhelmingly dominated by the continent’s wealthy and influential.
At the same time, UEFA has to work hard to ensure that the Europa is not merely looked upon as the Champions League’s ugly sister. The use of Thursdays should be avoided and there should be an attempt to alternate UCL and UEL matchdays, allowing the UEL to play on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – allow clear blue water between the two competitions. Although money should not be the driving force, UEFA could reconfigure the prize money to make the Europa less of a consolation tournament. Finally, in conjunction with a review and rationalisation of the UEFA Champions League, a reduction in the size of the competition.
So the draw has taken place and there’s some very weak groups among the 12, which adds fuel to the argument of trimming the format. However, there are some interesting groups, such as the one involving Porto, Young boys, Feyenoord and Rangers. Arsenal have a strongish group involving Eintracht Frankfurt, Standard Liège and Vitória de Guimarães.
Once the process of elimination takes place, the knockout phase should see the likes of Sevilla, Arsenal, Porto, Roma, Manchester United and perhaps Wolves come to the fore. That’s if they don’t slip on any banana skins on the way, of course.