The Europa League is a much maligned competition, certainly in England.
The Champions League’s little brother is still seen more as an inconvenience for English sides that miss out on the top four, and then have to juggle Thursday night games with weekend domestic fixtures. In short, it’s seen as a pain and a hindrance to reaching Europe’s elite competition the following season.
This season’s tournament has left us with two tasty semi-finals, with Juventus vs Benfica the pick of them. This fine Bianconeri team takes on a Benfica side riding a wave of emotion following the recent deaths of club legends Mario Coluna and, of course, Eusebio. It’s an intriguing clash and the various subplots makes it well worth watching, so why so much apathy towards the competition?
Well, it’s a bloated competition and UEFA must look at ways to sacrifice short-term revenue for long term interest, otherwise the tournament could be heading the same way as the Cup Winners’ Cup. Three qualifying rounds, followed by play-offs, a group stage and final knockout phase from 32 is a marathon that most teams with designs on Champions League football have little interest in.
There’s also the fact that it’s played on Thursdays. If it’s scheduled as an afterthought, it’s going to be treated as such. Playing the Europa League on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, alongside the Champions League, would help increase its prestige – and remove the need to interrupt the weekend’s domestic fixtures.
UEFA, who have confirmed that the 2015 Europa League winners will automatically enter the 2015-16 Champions League, should also look into increasing the prize money and stop the Champions League dropouts entering, which only increases the agony further. Indeed. there is still much for European football’s governing body to do.
Atletico Madrid have demonstrated that success in the Europa League can be the springboard to greater glory. Over the past four years, Los Rojiblancos has taken the competition seriously, winning it in 2010 and 2012, thus building the foundations for a team that now finds itself down to the last four in the Champions League and considered among the best on the continent.
Tottenham, for example, a bigger club than Atletico in terms of financial clout, have taken the tournament less seriously but are a light years away from replicating what their Spanish counterparts have achieved on the pitch.
There are plenty of reasons to enjoy the Europa League, as fans of Juventus, Benfica, Sevilla and Valencia will do tonight – but UEFA still has a long way to go in returning its secondary club competition to its former glory.
Benfica, beaten finalists in 2013, are 2.60 to beat Juventus tonight