Europa League needs revitalisation
Published: 18.02.13 / Written by: David Gold
As the Europa League kicks off again, bleary eyes will dismiss the competition with the usual attitudes of apathy and scorn.
The competition has long been the ugly sister of the Champions League, for the ‘others’, those not good enough to take part in Europe’s genuine marquee event.
Yet a glance through the last 32 ties should engender some excitement. Liverpool’s trip to Zenit St Petersburg for one is an even tie between one of Europe’s great names and one of the up and coming giants of the game. European champions Chelsea go to Prague to face Sparta. Ajax face Steaua Bucharest, two former European champions with rich histories.
Napoli will hope to use their experience in the Champions League last year to go further still this time around in the Europa League, and face the Czech side Victoria Plzen. Benfica are another who were in the big competition last year, and who have the pedigree and class to go far. They are at Bayer Leverkusen, riding high in the Bundesliga. This is a particularly exciting tie which should arouse some interest.
Tottenham face Olympique Lyonnais in another intriguing tussle. Hugo Lloris faces his old club, but this game could go either way. Lazio face Borussia Moenchengladbach as favourites to go through, but these two are excellent sides who can go much further. BATE Borisov caused some bloodies noses in the Champions League group stage, and will hope to shock Fenerbahce. Atletico Madrid, winners in two of the last three years and current holders, face Rubin Kazan, the wealthy Russian side enriched by the presence of Yann M’Vila after signing him last month.
And then there is Inter Milan, the Italian giants, who face Romania’s CFR Cluj. Another great name of European football, Olympiakos, travel to budget Spanish side Levante, whose team is built on the cheap but has performed admirably over the last 12 months. Bordeaux have impressed in France and will be optimistic travelling east to face Dynamo Kiev. Also in the east, Anzhi Makhachkala continue their campaign against Hannover. The wealthy Russian side will hope to show that their riches can buy success.
Yet the competition is still missing something. History perhaps, but also value and prestige. That could be restored if the Europa League is given an automatic place in the Champions League for the winners. That would acknowledge the competition’s secondary nature but also enhance its stature. Teams in general favour such an idea. And consider the case of teams like Inter Milan, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Lazio. All are battling in their domestic leagues for a Champions League spot next season. If they knew there would be a position open for the winners of this tournament, they would not be tempted to rest players for the Europa League and keep their best stars for the domestic league. That would really enhance this competition.
It would also be a good idea to reduce the number of games teams play. You have to play half a league season to win the Europa League at present. It is far too big and needs an urgent revamp. Either it should be turned into a pure knockout tournament, or if the group stages are to remain, there should only be eight of them and just the winners should progress. Or the Champions League’s third placed teams should not drop into the competition. Reducing it to 16 teams at this stage would be a positive step forward. That could just restore the prestige of Europe’s second competition.