Goals and dreams – A defence of the Europa League

Like Espanyol to the city of Barcelona, or 1860 Munich to the city of Munich, the popularity of the Europa League has been marginalised by the bright lights of a bigger name – the Champions League.

It is the Champions League which is the cream of club football, featuring the biggest clubs and thus the biggest names.

And as the pinnacle of European football, there are clubs that dedicate an entire season with no other goal than to qualify for it.

But what about the Europa League, the Champions League’s little brother? Competitively inferior to the Champions League, for sure, but does this mean the Europa League should be disregarded by football fans? Absolutely not.

Strolling away from the Allianz Riviera on a night where OGC Nice were leading against Lokomotiv Moscow at half-time only to lose 3-2 through a superbly taken Manuel Fernandes hat-trick in the second half, one could only think of one thing, and that is the brilliance of the spectacle.

Of course, games like this can develop anywhere at anytime. But the Europa League itself has a very important role to play in the development of such a spectacle. For both sides, this knockout tie is one of the most important games of the season.

Lokomotiv haven’t progressed beyond the group stage in a European competition since 2004; The last time OGC Nice did this was all the way back in 1998. For many teams, European knockout ties do not come around every season.

With the weight of the fixture bearing heavy, a tooth and nail encounter developed which saw both sides giving their best shot at progressing to the next stage. The pressure related to the encounter thus stemmed entirely on the competition in question and its associated importance.

Without this pressure, and the need for both sides to grasp the occasion by the scruff of the neck, l the same jingly, edge-of-your-seat encounter doesn’t develop. This is why we watch football, right? It is these matches which are often the most memorable, after all.

The argument that the Europa League itself plays a pivotal role in the development of such end-to-end affairs would fall apart if the encounter on the Côte d’Azur was an exception, but a quick glance at some of the results in the last two weeks adds even more credence.

Few predicted Napoli 1-3 RB Leipzig last week for example, and despite heading into the second leg in a seemingly comfortable position, Die Bullen lost 2-0 in Leipzig on Thursday night and almost lost the tie on aggregate. An erratic and open affair, to say the least.

Further to this we saw Borussia Dortmund 3-2 Atalanta last week, a game which the Italians were winning 2-1 at one stage. They looked to be going through on Thursday night until Marcel Schmelzer equalised in Bergamo with seven minutes to go to send his side through on aggregate.

Yes, the Europa League lacks the glamour of the Champions League, but does it lack its excitement? Clearly not.

Whilst on the subject of the Champions League, it is important to note that there are a whole bunch of clubs which are not good enough to compete in Europe’s elite competition, but are nevertheless good enough to compete with the next rung of European football clubs.

Without the existence of the Europa League, such clubs would be left in a continental black hole absolved of any excitement of European football. The existence of the Europa League, however, enables these clubs to project their style of football against opponents of similar quality with a realistic shot of succeeding.

High in quality, the Champions League is too far of a reach for many a European club. The Europa League therefore acts a great intermediary – not quite the difficulty of the Champions League, but not easy enough to be considered a mere training exercise.

As a European competition, the Europa League clearly offers a marked alternative from the rigours of the domestic league. Of course, for some, this can be a problem.

The Europa League can “get in the way” of the domestic season. Or it can be a welcomed distraction, depending on your objectives.

When your domestic form is uninspiring, as OGC Nice’s has been this season, the Europa League becomes the focal point, and the match against Lokomotiv Moscow offers the Niçois a saving grace from their domestic plight.

Fans come together and players are galvanised, even more so if the European run continues.

In short, nothing excites more than a long awaited European tie. In the midst of an indifferent season, the Europa League can act as a welcomed lift that clubs not competing in it do not have the opportunity to grasp.

What is quite wonderful about the Europa League also is the obscurity of some of its competitors.

Of course, there are some incredibly obscure teams that compete in the qualifiers of the Champions League – the winners of the Maltese premier league, Europa FC, took part this season, along with the winners of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio, San Marino’s premier club competition, La Fiorita.

But, of course, no one expects these teams to get through the initial qualifying rounds.

Apart from the one or two exceptions to the rule each year, group stage opponents in the Champions League involve seasoned European sides.

This isn’t the case in the Europa League. This season’s group stage saw a variety of new competitors. Vardar became the first ever Macedonian club to reach the group stages of a European competition and Skënderbeu Korçë achieved the same honours for Albania. Konyaspor competed for only the second time in their 95-year history.

Östersund have even managed to advance to the knockout stages despite competing in Europe for the first time ever. Such obscurity beyond the qualifying rounds is absolutely remarkable.

And of course, for such clubs, European ties weigh even heavier. Östersund’s match-up against Arsenal, for example, is a dream tie for the Swedes, and the most important match in the club’s history so far.

This is the glory of the Europa League – it gives clubs such as these an opportunity of a lifetime. Given the heightened ability of teams in the Champions League, and its more selective entry standards, such ties are far less likely, especially in the knockout rounds.

Of course, there are always some teams that don’t take it seriously, perhaps placing more importance on domestic success. But the majority do take it seriously.

Add this to the competition’s unpredictability, its accessibility, its offer of a European adventure for many a club, and the realism of success it offers intermediary European teams, the Europa League should be celebrated, not looked down upon.

The Author

Jack Flanagan

Principally I am a lover of football, which means I pay attention to all associated with it across the globe. The developments I find interesting I put into writing. And that is all there is to it!

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