For many of European football’s big clubs qualifying for the continent’s second tier competition is not always looked upon favourably.
In a world where the Champions League is considered as the ultimate trophy a team can ever win, there is also a Europa League, more popularly known as the second tier of European football, which remains a dream for most of the less established teams.
However, in the recent years, it has become a matter of debate, the credibility of the Europa League and its importance in world football. Does Europa League offer enough to the contesting teams or is it high time to scratch the competition for good?
To throw light on the highly discussed issue, read our correspondent from Ghaziabad NCR region, Waseem Zaidi, as he writes in favour about the boons of the League while on the other hand, Pune correspondent Neil Talnikar stands against.
Direct UEFA Champions League qualification for the winner
It was in the season of 2014/15 where it was decided that the winner of the UEFA Europa League would gain an automatic qualification into the main draw of the UEFA Champions League. Prior to that, the winner had to go through the qualification process. This change in the rules makes the Europa League a great opportunity for the aspiring mid-table clubs to have a chance to taste Champions League football.
Sevilla FC were the first team to gain automatic qualification into the Champions League after winning the Europa League in 2014
It is not an easy task to finish in the top-four positions, but finishing 5th or 6th is enough to gain qualification into the UEL. Winning the competition is a nice alternative path to feature in the Champions League. Sevilla was the first club to reap the benefits of this rule after winning the title in 2014/15 and gaining Champions League qualification for their efforts, despite struggling in La Liga.
The myth of fixture congestion is nothing but a trivial matter
Teams participating in the Europa League have complained of fixture congestions that leave their players fatigued and injured. Majority of the games are played on a Thursday night, which prompts the managers to complain about the lack of time gap, having to play their domestic fixtures on Sunday. However, it is important to note that the teams participating in the Champions League also play on a Wednesday night followed by their domestic fixture on the following Saturday.
Therefore, it is merely an issue of mental preparation on the part of the support staff of respective clubs who must get their players mentally prepared in respect to the demands that are faced while competing in European competitions. The respective domestic league associations can also take measures such as shifting match dates to accommodate European fixtures.
Great stage to test young players and future prospects
European fixtures combined with domestic league matches and domestic cup matches result in a hefty amount of games that a team has to play in short intervals. While it is not always possible to give all the players in the roster a fair amount of game time, having more games to play can be a good outlet to introduce the budding talents and give them proper exposure.
This is where Europa League comes into play. With a less competitive playing field, the elite and aspiring clubs alike can use the tournament to test their future stars and perhaps find an exquisite talent among them. It is a blessing in disguise to have a tight schedule in such situations as players who are misfiring or need a run out to get back in form can be utilised in this tournament. It is also beneficial for the future prospects who get a decent stage to make a name for themselves and challenge for a starting place in the lineup for their clubs.
Good insurance policy for the heavyweight clubs
Participating in the Europa League may be an unlikely destination for elite clubs of Europe, but in a scenario where their domestic form is dwindling and the team is having a season to forget, then the Europa League suddenly becomes a fantastic insurance policy to save the season. Similarly, the two London-based clubs in Arsenal and Chelsea are also vying to save their seasons by focussing on the Europa League.
Manchester United salvaged their terrible 2016/17 campaign by winning the Europa League
This was the case for Manchester United back in 2016/17 season where they finished 6th in the table but thanks to focussing all of their attention towards Europa League, they managed to win it and attain Champions League qualification for next season. Therefore, the competition in itself becomes top priority and a vital insurance policy for teams who are struggling domestically.
The prize money and the attraction of continental football
One of the best outcomes of Europa League is the chance of experiencing European nights for fans of lesser-known clubs in different parts of Europe. To be able to boast European football participation plays its part for the clubs in attracting players and sponsorships alike.
In terms of prize money, it is a big step up that can help the developing clubs in improving the level of their squads. For the 2018/19 season, the group stage participation alone fetched €2,920,000. The champions and the runners-up receive €8,500,000 and €4,500,000 respectively in addition to the TV rights of their domestic league. While Europa League may not be the biggest title in Europe, but it certainly pays well.
Difficult to focus on domestic league
A major argument by the European big guns is based on the fact that due to the Europa League, the focus on domestic league is somewhat diminished from the sights. In case of teams who have had a bad previous season, it would be much more sensible and practical for them to focus and bounce back stronger to finish at a higher position in their respective league, rather than choose a hard way fighting for direct qualification to Champions League by winning the Europa League.
This is, although, more relative to the well-established teams than the sporadically qualifying teams.
Fixture congestion at crucial junctures
Citing an example of the recent scenario in the Premier League, where Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal were all fighting for a top four finish, the midweek Europa League fixtures seemed more burdensome for the latter two teams.
Congestion of fixtures results in less time for recovery for players who might end up suffering injuries
The Londoners’ semi final fixtures against Eintracht Frankfurt and Valencia respectively, weren’t quite easy. In the end it all came down to quality and a pinch of luck as they both progressed to the final without receiving any injury blows, which could have otherwise been a major issue in their backup stance to finish in the top four.
Extra knockout round to play
The structure of Europa League is such that even after clearing the group stages, there is an extra knockout round- the round of 32, which is to be played over two legs.
This naturally increases the workload for the players as the format of the league becomes too long and hectic at the same time. Moreover, the preliminary stages like such also don’t attract huge crowds, which explains a kind of failure from the marketing perspective.
Involves travelling to obscure countries
The Europa League consists primarily of teams, less established from the obscure countries of Europe. MOL Vidi, Rubin Kazan, Midtjylland, Ludogorets, Astana are examples of some of the lesser established teams which more or less regularly play in the Europa League.
However, they never stand a chance against the more established teams and quite often are knocked out in the preliminary stages itself. Thus, for the bigger teams, it makes less sense to travel all the way for away games to the countries where these clubs are based. These fixtures are therefore seen more as ‘friendlies’, rather than competitive ones.
Question of credibility
For most top clubs to Europa League is only seen as a pathway into the Champions League
It is often the case where the Europa League is treated as the ‘second tier’ of European football. Apart from the fans of the clubs participating in the League, very less people bat an eye towards their matches.
With all the money invested by the European big guns, winning the Europa League doesn’t count as a big achievement after all. On the other hand, it would be much appreciated if it is won by the rising young teams, in the sense that this would provide a platform for their development and make them capable enough to face bigger teams.