The Europa League is one of the premier competitions in Europe, yet in England it is greeted with disgruntled clubs who see the competition as no more than a distraction to their domestic priorities.
‘Thursday nights on channel five’ was the derogatory chant often heard echoing around many Premier league stadiums, however, over the last couple of seasons opinion has shifted and the dangled carrot of a place in the UEFA Champions League is a mouth watering proposition. Look no further than Liverpool for example.
After lifting the UEFA Cup in 2001 after a 5-4 victory over Alaves, Liverpool then went began their quest to become one of the biggest teams in Europe. Liverpool went on to win the treble that season and four years later they famously won the UEFA Champions League in Istanbul. Many supporters had become accustomed to Liverpool playing in the premier european competition, so taking a ‘step down’ to the Europa League was far from appetising.
However, in recent years Liverpool have been absent from European competition and with English football strengthening, it is becoming more difficult to break into the top four in the Premier League. Therefore, the Europa League has held greater importance as a second chance for big European sides to earn a place in the Champions League.
The Champions League will always belittle the Europa League with its superior financial bonuses, lucrative prize money and broadcasting rights. However, in England especially, the Europa League holds more value than ever before and we are beginning to see a shift in focus.
Across the continent in Spain, Italy, France and Germany you could pretty much guarantee the sides who will represent Europe’s top leagues in the Champions League which makes it notoriously difficult for a third and fourth placed team to break the mould, meaning the Europa League is their only realistic hope of european silverware and it is therefore taken seriously, and rightly so.
In Spain Real Madrid and Barcelona are two dominant forces, leaving the likes of Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao fighting it out for a place in the Europa League.
The same applies in Germany, France and Italy where you have Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen, Lyon, Marseille, Juventus and Roma as the only two teams who automatically qualify for the Champions League; making the Europa League the only option for third and fourth as two clubs continue to dominate.
In England we are lucky enough to have four teams in the Champions League leaving fifth and sixth in the Premier League with somewhat of a consolation prize.
The grueling schedule often makes the tournament feel unappreciated in England compared to its continental rivals, who hold the tournament in much higher regard. Teams can find themselves playing up to 23 matches in the tournament on Thursday nights alongside a demanding domestic campaign on a weekend, often leads to disgruntled managers, players and importantly, fans.
Managers in previous years, including Liverpool and Tottenham, could be seen fielding weakened sides to illustrate the importance they held the Europa League in.
However under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool have approached the Europa League with a breath of fresh air, a clean slate. Klopp has taken his side to France, Russia, Switzerland, Germany and Spain this season in their march to the final in Basel.
Liverpool may have played over sixty matches this season, but Klopp has often fielded strong teams, especially on their travels. For instance, Liverpool faced an unwelcome trip to Russia to face Rubin Kazan where they ran out 1-0 victors after fielding a strong team. However, three days later they lost to Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Finally the shift has begun in England.
Liverpool and for that matter, Sevilla have seen the tournament as a window of opportunity rather than a distraction. Both sides have reached the final having to get past some European powerhouses on the way, including Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and Athletic Bilbao; As Sevilla look to claim the trophy for the fifth time in ten years.
Don’t also forget that this is a tournament which european greats, Inter Milan and AC Milan didn’t even qualify for this season, illustrating that getting in the tournament in the first place is no easy feat.
Previous winners include Liverpool, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Sevilla, Valencia, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich and that’s only in the last twenty years. All of the above have later gone on to become European powerhouses and each have had to serve their time in the Europa League to get where they are since winning the competition.
Past players who have won the competition include Diego Maradona and Gianluigi Buffon - neither of whom have ever won the Champions League.
An English victor would be a welcome sight for England and the Premier League after Spain’s recent dominance in both of europe’s elite competitions. A Liverpool win versus Sevilla will do both Liverpool and the Europa League the world of good.
The Europa League is no Mickey Mouse and England now appear to be following their European suitors in finally sitting up and taking the competition seriously.
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