Thursday, 3 October 2013

How To Make The Europa League Interesting

Interest in the artist formerly know as the UEFA Cup has reached probably is lowest ever point. It has essentially become the competition that nobody wants to be in. We have reached the point now where clubs like Inter, Roma and Liverpool among others, once they are incapable of making the Champions League places, would rather finish lower in the league and be excused from European competition altogether rather than face the dread of Thursday night football and the possible seventeen game run at the Europa League.

Spurs, Fiorentina and Valencia all missed out on Champions League qualification on the final day of their respective domestic campaigns last year. As a result, all three sizeable European clubs have to sit back on watch on Tuesday and Wednesday nights while in the next round of fixtures Arsenal play host to Dortmund, Milan face Barcelona and Real Socidead play Manchester United. Spurs have a double header with Sherrif Tiraspol to look forward to this month. Fiorentina are in a group with Dinipro Dinipropetrovsk and Panduril Targu Jiu while Valencia will be looking to bounce from a shock home defeat to European newbies Swansea when they travel to Russia to face Kuban Krasnodar on Thursday.

AVB would rather be pitting his wits against the likes of Guardiola and Ancelotti

So UEFA have a problem. Whether they care to admit it or not. The big clubs tend to dis-regard the Europa League and deem it not worthy of their attention. Inter Milan's form deteriorated alarmingly towards the end of last season once it became apparent they would not make the top 3. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has gone on record saying he would rather not compete in Europe at all than slum it in the Europa League. Harry Redknapp said something similar when in charge of Tottenham, expressing a desire to be eliminated early so as to focus on Champions League qualification. They were knocked out before Christmas and ended up finishing 4th.

So how to fix the problem. Here are five things for UEFA to consider.

1. Scrap It

OK this doesn't actually solve anything and is more of a last resort than a solution but if the competition becomes no longer profitable to UEFA and to the clubs involved it should be scrapped. This would possibly coincide with an expansion to the Champions League It should never come to this however.

2. Expand It

The opposite end of the spectrum. Why not expand the Europa League to include more teams especially from the higher ranked leagues. The likes of Inter, Roma, Liverpool and Everton, all big clubs, all with large fan-bases, all missing out on Europe this season. UEFA are missing out on valuable income generated by these big clubs.

New look Roma are 6 from 6 in Serie A but absent from Europe.

To accommodate these teams UEFA could look at expanding the Europa League into a few different tiers. A 'Europa League Premier' containing 32 of the best teams outside the Champions League. Below this a 'Europa League B' consisting of the next level of teams. This would ensure each game is competitive and well fought and clubs would be less likely to dis-respect the competition by fielding an under-strength XI.

3. Bring back the Cup-Winners Cup

Remember this? The popular Cup-Winners Cup was scrapped in 1999 and merged with the UEFA Cup as it was then known. The competition pitted the winners of each domestic cup in Europe against each other in a two-legged knock-out format. It was extremely popular in the years prior to the drastic expansion of the Champions League. When only champions were included in Europe's premier competition, the cup winners from that country would enter the CWC. Manchester United famously beat Barcelona in the final in 1991 securing Fergie's first European success at the club. Arsenal won the cup in 1994 and Chelsea beat Real Madrid in the 1971 final before winning the penultimate competition in 1998. A goal from Gianfranco Zola seeing off Stuttgart in the Stockholm final.

Chelsea taste glory in 1999.

This seasons Europa League features two teams both (deservedly) in the competition by virtue of winning their domestic cups. Wigan, from England, who won the FA Cup last May and Pasching (now eliminated), from Austria who won the Austrian Cup last year. Wigan were relegated three days after their cup success and now sit 15th in the second tier of English football. Pasching didn't even exist until 2007. The club plays in the Regional League Central in Austria, the third tier.

Putting these clubs in a Cup Winners Cup solves two problems:
  1. Increases the competitiveness of the Europa League. Fiorentina or Spurs would destroy Pasching should they come up against them and no one would benefit from the experience. Not even the Spurs reserves who'd take to the field on that particular Thursday.
  2. Gives the 'smaller' cup winners a better chance at European glory. They have already proved themselves capable cup-teams on the domestic stage. Now here's a chance to do it on a European front in a straight knock-out format. Rather than suffer six hidings in a group format.

4. Split in into East and West

On Thursday night, Spurs face Anzhi Mhakhackhala in Moscow. A near 5000 kilometre round trip before they have to face fierce London rivals West Ham on Sunday. It is trips like these that put clubs in England particularly off playing in the competition. The league is the priority for Spurs this season. Not just qualifying for the Champions League but winning it outright is amongst their targets. A trip to the outskirts of Asia is not what they need just 72 hours before an important derby game. Liverpool missed out on this seasons competition. Sheep sacrificing Shaktar Karagnady didn't as champions of Kazakhstan and CL Play-Off losers (another dubious rule). The distance between these two cities surpasses the 5000 mile mark. Imagine facing this trip and then returning home to face United on Sunday lunchtime. No wonder Brendan Rodgers didn't want anything to do with this competition.

Nightmare draw for any Western clubs

A potential solution to this would be to split the competition into east and west sections, maybe having the two winners face off in a Superbowl like final. Spurs draw this year was particularly nasty. Aside from the trip to Moscow they must venture inside the boundaries of the Arctic Circle to face Tromso and travel to Moldova for a less than glamorous tie with Sherrif Tiraspol. The proposed divide would remove all but Tromso (Norway) from the equation. Leaving them significantly less fatigued when they resume their league campaigns the following Sundays.

5. Champions League spot for the Winners

A sure-fire way to drum up interest in this competition would be to offer the winners an automatic spot in the following seasons Champions League group stage. Athletico Madrid would have benefited from this as winners in both 2010 and 2012. Instead Diego Simone has had to wait until this year for another crack at the big leagues. In the case where the winner has already qualified for the competition via the traditional way, the runner-up is awarded the spot and the final goes back to just being about the trophy.

Athletico have had to wait to 'breakout' of the Europa League

The competition for Champions League places is about to get very intense in England especially where it has been pretty monotonous for so long. Serious investment from Spurs and Liverpool has made them genuine contenders. Six into four doesn't go and two big teams are going to be left facing into the Europa abyss at the end of the season. In some cases, securing a spot in the competition via winning the Europa League may be a more viable options for clubs who finish 5th and 6th or win a cup.

After all, the losers from the Champions League group stages are demoted to the Europa league so why not promote the winners? It makes sense.

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