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Does the Europa League need a change – or a change of attitude?

UEFA Europa League: underwhelming or under-appreciated?

It’s the morning after match day four. There’s loads of talking points; Real Madrid’s capitulation to the hands of Pochetinno’s brilliant Tottenham, Jose’s stubborn United taking maximum points in group A or Celtic’s brave performance against the might of Bayern Munich. However, it’s not the Champions League which is at discussion, its UEFA’s little brother – the Europa League.

In contrast, not a lot can be said for match day four. In truth, there are very little overwhelming topics to discuss about Thursday night’s fixtures. This may seem harsh to many of last night’s games, where a number of European teams successfully navigated themselves to three points, and even a place in the knockout rounds. Yet, there seems to be a problem with the Europa League – or is it a problem with the teams in it?

Since 2009 the Europa League has ran in its current format, incorporating a mammoth 104 teams, with fixtures starting in July. The group stages are 50% larger than that of the Champions League, with an additional four groups of four around the continent. The tournament still favours its roots, and by replacing the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, it continues to include domestic cup winners from every member nation. However, the format is not the root of its problems. The Europa League has a lingering sense of negativity – especially amongst Premier League clubs. Year on year, we continue to see clubs de-value the competition; viewing it as a hindrance to their league form, or exhausting for their star men. Many clubs have fed their own ego for so long that they now feel the Europa League is beneath them, and the media tend to accept that.

Yes, it is true that playing on a Thursday can be detrimental to a weekend fixture and consequently play a part in dropping points. However, for many of these teams, what are their aims? To prioritise the Premier League, in order to qualify for Europe again? Surely that’s a bit hypocritical.

Take Arsenal for example. They harbour one of the strongest squads in the competition, and have a realistic chance of going the full way. Yet, they refuse to get excited about the competition in any way, shape or form. Not all Arsenal fans will feel this way, however Arsene Wenger and his board seem to feel that way. Arsenal are yet to play a full strength team in the group stages, and to their credit they still sit top of the group. However, the club charge premium prices for the fixtures and field a fringe team – and while it is unsurprising, where is there sense in that? Although, I am all for their youth getting a chance, fans may begin to feel short changed as they pay top dollar for a seat at the Emirates, for stars such as Sanchez, Ozil or Lacazette to have the night off.

If we are put this in perspective, this is a club that have been visibly hurt having gone a decade without a major honour. A club that have only lifted one European title in their existence (Cup winners Cup in 1994), yet they are a club that currently feel that the Europa League is far less significant than their league form.

We only need to look at their first home game in the competition to put the stark contrasts in to picture. Germany’s FC Koln took an astonishing 17,000 away fans to England’s capital, as they entered their first European fixture in 25 years. The fans were ecstatic their club even had the chance to be involved, and in bizarre fashion took over the home end in a desperate dash to see the game. This game brought more atmosphere to North London than many Gunners had seen in a long time. Yet, it was a game where Arsenal could not get genuinely excited about despite a comfortable 3-1 win. However, this problem isn’t just about Arsenal.

The UEL continues to be a nuisance for the Premier League’s European ‘elite’, placing itself alongside the fabled English League Cup. The perception of the tournament is a poor one. This season Everton crashed out their group before they could even get started. Their priority was their league form after match day one as they find themselves in a relegation battle after only 10 games in the Premier League.

In previous years, Tottenham and Liverpool were also guilty of resting players, preserving their fitness for their next PL fixture on the Sunday afternoon. There is an easy explanation of course, and it’s been proven successful. Chelsea thrived last year without any European hangover, and Leicester took advantage the year before. Nevertheless, should our teams not look to be judged on trophies rather than the elusive top four spot at the end of the season?

Thursday night football is not perfect, far from it. Yet, success is influential in every avenue for a football club. It is no coincidence that a feel-good factor has returned to Manchester United following their Europa League triumph in May. Silverware is a catalyst for a successful team, players become hungry for more and it helps lay the foundations of a strong team, no matter what competition. Wenger should look to follow in Mourinho’s footsteps on this one, as difficult as that may be, because his title credentials are now dwarfed by that of Pep’s scintillating City and the rest of the current top four.

Playing European football is no given. It is the experiences forged that make them so great. If you want to measure the magnitude of a European trip, then take that of the Old Firm. Undoubtedly, two of the largest clubs on the continent, yet it was a UEFA Cup run that meant absolutely everything to them. Both teams reached the final and although they were defeated by their opponents, it remains a very memorable and significant experience for both clubs. Meet any Celtic fan, and they won’t take long to remind you of their great trip to Seville in 2001. Or if you bump in to any Rangers supporter, they’ll have great memories of their amazing route to Manchester in 2008. Despite the stark differences between the English Premier League and Scottish Premiership, the European away days are the pinnacle for supporters, so why don’t we start showing them a bit of respect?

There is very well the opportunity for me to eat my words. If Arsenal draw one of the big names dropping out the Champions League group stages, then they may up their game. There is the possibility of Napoli, Dortmund, Atletico and Monaco entering the EL knockouts, but why should it take till the New Year for it to get exciting?

The old UEFA Cup format offered a straight knockout from the offset, with a round of 32 starting late in the year. After that, group stages were introduced, but with a round robin; so every point mattered when playing only four games (two home, two away). However, with the Champions League becoming so valuable to clubs around the Europe, both competitions expanded to allow more teams, more games and in turn more financial reward.

The Europa League simply put is nothing to some but everything to others. There is no way round that at the minute and UEFA cannot influence how clubs view or prioritise the competition. Yet, there is plenty opportunity for clubs to give back to the fans, and show that they are hungry for success. Football is a partisan sport, it is all about the will to win, and there are no trophies handed out for simply qualifying. If clubs such as Arsenal are disappointed with missing out on the Champions League, right your wrongs and bring the club its first Europa League – or at the very least, be honest with the fans that are paying and travelling to the games.

By Lewis McKenzie

03/11/2017