His predecessor at Spurs, Harry Redknapp, once quoted that he saw the competition as a punishment for his side failing to qualify for the Champions League and Liverpool have been mocked in recent years for their participation, leading to the birth of the sarcastic “Thursday night, Channel 5” chants.
Alan Pardew admitted that he is struggling to balance the Thursday, Sunday schedule that comes hand in hand with Europa League participation, suggesting the competition is becoming a hindrance to Newcastle’s domestic campaign. He has turned to Everton manager David Moyes for his advice, seeing as Moyes too has had the same balancing issues in past seasons.
Yet for Villas Boas, this is a tournament he has excelled in, winning it two years ago with Porto and he has expressed his desire to win it once more with Tottenham. Likewise, both Fulham and Middlesbrough have enjoyed memorable Europa League cup runs in the not too distant past and benefited financially as a result.
So why is the Europa League not prioritised in England, and why is it a competition that is seen more of a burden than an opportunity? After all, it does represent a fantastic chance to play on the European stage. I believe the answer to this can be found by looking at the format of the competition. Simply put, there are too many matches in the Europa League, and too many sides teams that aren’t of the required quality to encourage fans to watch the games.
Teams have to get through up to four qualification games before even reaching the group stage of the tournament, often being forced to play games as early as July resulting in an incredibly long campaign for those involved at the first opportunity. Once in the group stage, teams play the three opponents in their group home and away.
With games usually taking place on Thursday evenings, this has an unwanted impact on kick off times for the subsequent weekend, as games are pushed back to Sundays as a result, which is a major inconvenience to many fans. Even after the completion of the group stage, there are still 32 teams left in the competition, as another eight are welcomed in for finishing third in their Champions League groups.
The result of this long winded format is that teams are forced to play up to 14 games in order to reach the final, so it is inevitable that interest will wander over such a long period, especially when it is a competition that remains deep within the shadows of the Champions League.
One possibility to spice things up is to make a return to the UEFA Cup days, which comprised of a straight knockout format for each round. The benefits of this system are multiple. Firstly, it means there are no dead rubber games, as often occurs towards the end of the group stages, so each game is worth watching. Secondly, it vastly reduces the number of games each side plays. This means that teams and supporters are likely to take the competition more seriously and give it some much needed integrity back.
I see this as the only option available in order to get clubs to take this competition seriously again. Of course with money now the primary objective in football, UEFA are unlikely to be keen to see the number of games in the competition reduce, and if anything will extend the competition further by introducing yet more teams to compete, just like they have done for future Euros.