Europa League deserves better
We are now into the third season of the Europa League, the rebranded version of the UEFA Cup, a name which had a long and glorious history.
It's a great shame the competition lost its proper name. Like many instances of rebranding, it wasn't the name itself that was the problem -- it was what the name had become associated with. The UEFA Cup had gradually lost its glamour since the expansion of the Champions League around the turn of the 21st century, and UEFA needed to inject new life into the competition.
The name change coincided with something more important: a change in structure. Mercifully, the terrible five-team group stage was abolished. That was a horrible format -- teams played each either only once, home or away, so it was down to luck whether you'd get tricky away trips or not. Even more annoyingly, three of the five teams qualified -- it was common to progress with just one win from four matches. This stale, lifeless football was a waste of time.
The competition is now a mini-version of the Champions League: four-team groups, playing home and away, then a knockout competition after Christmas. This is an improvement, but there are still structural issues. The kickoff times are frustratingly early and often result in poor attendance, while sides simply play far too many games. When Fulham reached the final of the tournament in 2010, it competed in 19 matches -- the equivalent of half an extra league campaign. These problems need to be addressed.
But poor organization shouldn't be confused with poor football. Once we reach this point in the season, the Europa League is fantastic. Don't be afraid of accepting what the Europa League is -- a European competition for those not quite good enough to compete in the Champions League. Or, rather, not rich enough to compete. The Champions League is UEFA's favorite cash cow, and a limited set of teams can win the competition in any given season -- six or seven, perhaps.
Look at the recent winners of the UEFA Cup/Europa League, and they're exactly the sort of sides you want to be winning a second-string competition. Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Atletico Madrid and Porto, the past four winners, have all been excellent sides. They all possessed skilled attackers, good movement and tremendous technical quality across the pitch. The likes of Benfica, Fiorentina, Villarreal and Werder Bremen, well-run clubs and good footballing sides, have all fallen at the semifinal stage.
This year's competition is also high on quality. Athletic Bilbao have been a revelation in the second half of the season, and its superb performance against Manchester United over two legs was a stunning display of passing and pressing. That was the perfect type of match for the Europa League. Valencia is an even stronger side than Athletic, judging by its position in La Liga, and should be able to turn around its 2-1 deficit to AZ Alkmaar at the Mestalla. Sporting Lisbon and Atletico Madrid are the other two sides likely to reach the quarterfinals, and yet again we should have an attractive final four lineup. Interestingly, last year's semifinal quartet -- Porto, Braga, Villarreal and Benfica -- was exclusively Iberian. We have both quality and variety in the latter stages, which is something the Champions League cannot boast.
Yet only the latter stages prompt this excitement. The group stage is almost impossible to follow -- 12 groups of four teams, all played in one night, is a nightmare. That is followed by the introduction of the sides that finished third in their Champions League group (which, despite its unpopularity, is not a huge problem in itself, as it does help to keep the standard high). But we're still down to only 32 teams -- which seems ludicrous given that every side has played at least six group games. Some have played eight qualification matches before that. Fourteen games to get to the last 32?
The Europa League needs two things to fulfill its potential. The first is simple -- a financial incentive to succeed. The club that earned the most money from the Europa League last season was Villarreal, with 9 million euros. That barely compares with the 53.2 million euros that top earner Manchester United received from the Champions League, and the reality is that you're better off performing poorly in the Champions League than performing well in the Europa League. UEFA will find it difficult to direct money away from the big clubs and toward the Europa League, so the obvious solution is to reward the Europa winners with a Champions League place, and financial remuneration that way.
In fact, why not go further -- award all four clubs that reach the Europa semifinals with a Champions League place? That would encourage sides to take the competition seriously. Some would complain about rewarding failure, but we already allow third- and fourth-placed sides in domestic leagues into the Champions League. Why not those who finish third and fourth in the sister European competition?
The second fix is differentiation and separation from the Champions League. The Europa League doesn't have to be conducted in exactly the same format. Instead, it would be fabulous to see a straight knockout tournament, reminiscent of the old days. No group stage needed -- just two-legged knockout ties from the start.
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That way, we could scrap four group games and give sides a freer schedule at the start of the season. Clubs like Tottenham and Liverpool are reluctant to take the Europa League seriously because their fixture list becomes packed at the start of the season, and the Europa League offers only a vague chance of success at that stage. Reduce the number of games in the fall and they'd take it more seriously. By March and April, with the calendar freer and these clubs no longer playing for anything in the league, they'd probably welcome another chance to win silverware.
Of course, a straight knockout competition wouldn't feature any "league," so the "Europa League" would no longer be appropriate. We'd have to change it again -- in both name and nature, we'd have the UEFA Cup back.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.
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