“Thursday nights on Channel 5” goes the chant. It’s not meant as a compliment. The UEFA Europa League (and the UEFA Cup before it) has been a punchline for a while now, the joke being on the sides not quite good enough for the top tier of European football.
But, although UEFA’s second club competition can’t better the Champions League in terms of prestige, pound-for-pound it beats it for entertainment, virtually year-on-year.
Bear with me: the slog of the group stage is excluded from this, where it’s often Spurs against FC Kristos Trilolipis or whoever at 6pm on BT Sport 2; just like in the Champions League, it’s a drawn out process, there to ensure the best two teams make it to the knockout stage.
But this is where the two competitions differ.
Whereas you’re left with the same elite sides in the Champions League, the Europa League throws surprises and old school glamour ties into the mix. Look at this year’s last 16. Manchester United-Liverpool is the most important game in both clubs’ seasons, Tottenham-Borussia Dortmund is a Champions League fixture in all but name, while recent winners Shakhtar Donetsk and G-Nev’s Valencia lurk in a draw that doesn’t feature a single overmatched team. Nearly every tie delivered in the first leg, from goalless nailbiters (Basel-Sevilla), to thrashings (Dortmund-Spurs), to pure drama (Liverpool beating United 2-0 – it was the loudest Anfield’s been all season).
Compare that to the last 16 of the Champions League. Arsenal exited at the same stage for the sixth year on the bounce, Real Madrid beat Roma 4-0 on aggregate, and Atletico needed penalties to overcome PSV after nearly four hours of goalless football. It’s predictable – there wasn’t a single upset. Even in the token minnows tie between Wolfsburg and Gent, the Bundesliga side still got through. Juventus pushed Bayern very close in what was the best clash of the round, but they were still knocked out.
It’s the same old names in the quarter-finals – it wasn’t meant to be anything else. It’s absurd, but Man City’s lack of European pedigree means they can be considered the competition’s underdogs – a club that spent more than £150m in the summer transfer window.
Before Chelsea won the Europa League in 2013, the last three British finalists were Fulham, Rangers, and Middlesbrough. All three clubs are now in the second tier of their domestic leagues. Each went on old fashioned cup runs. Fulham, in particular, upset the odds in 2010 by defeating Shakhtar, Juve, Wolfsburg, and Hamburg en route to the final – sides with real European calibre.
It’s something that simply couldn’t happen in the Champions League, a competition designed to ensure the top teams progress. The only true minnow to make it to the latter stages of the Champions League in recent times? Probably APOEL in 2012, who overcame Lyon on penalties to make it to the quarter-finals. Where they were duly beaten 8-2 on aggregate by Real Madrid.
The Europa League isn’t without its flaws. Thursday night games needlessly messes around with that weekend’s league fixtures, while playing both legs over seven days is unfair (the Champions League has a three-week break between fixtures). The group stage too, is dull. But for pure knockout football, our best versus your best, the Europa League beats its bigger, flashier brother nearly every time.
It’s the competition where the great yellow wall of the Westfalenstadion rocks the whole of western Germany; where Marcus Rashford became United’s next, great hope; and where Gary Neville prowls the touchline, reminiscing about Monday nights with Jamie Carragher. Plus, the prize of a Champions League place for the winner the following season is an added incentive – it’s all Liverpool are playing for this season.
So, sick of the Champions League? Give the Europa League a chance. It’s the alternative European night for the most discerning of football hipsters. Do you think perennial holders Sevilla really wanted to get through their Champions League group? Hell they did. They went after third place so they could enter the Europa League and defend their trophy. Again. They know where it’s at.