There is little doubt that in recent years the Champions League’s weaker ‘little brother’ competition, the Europa League, has grown in prestige.
From the 2014/15 season, UEFA introduced the coveted prize of Champions League (CL) qualification for the winners of the Europa League (EL). This change has improved the standard of the tournament hugely with the bigger teams no longer just using the former UEFA Cup as a run-out for fringe players.
The competition which, since the turn of the century, had such finalists as Middlesbrough, Fulham, CSKA Moscow and Braga has gained back some of the esteem it hadn’t really possessed since the 90s.
Sevilla, Liverpool, Manchester United, Ajax and Atletico Madrid have been the more recent contenders to the crown. Those clubs have played in at least one EL final since a place in the following season’s CL was put up for grabs. Although, Sevilla do seem to have something of a love affair with Europe’s second largest club competition having won it five times, all since 2006.
As this season’s EL heads into the knockout stages, just 32 clubs from around Europe remain. Internazionale, Napoli, Chelsea, Valencia, Celtic, Lazio, Sevilla, Sporting, Villarreal, Arsenal and Benfica are the biggest clubs still vying for a place in this year’s final.
The competition has thrown up some fascinating match-ups in recent years and, judging by this season’s last 32, it’s going to provide plenty more entertainment for football fans between now and May.
However, there are also more big changes on the way for the EL competition.
In early December, UEFA announced plans for another European club tournament. Simply labelled as the Europa League 2, for now, the competition would provide a platform for clubs from the lower-ranked leagues in Europe to face one another.
It is reported that the champions of every country will enter the CL, at least at the qualifying rounds. Then, the other top-placed teams throughout Europe would go into either the EL or the Europa League 2 (EL2).
So, what does this mean for the current EL competition format? Apparently, only teams from the 15 top-ranked leagues in Europe will make it into the Europa League. All other ‘weaker’ leagues will provide the contestants for the EL2.
The EL2 tournament will begin from the 2021/22 season. As a result, the existing EL will reduce in quantity to 32 teams, comprised of 8x groups of four. The winners of each group will qualify for the last 16 while the group runners-up will face teams who have just been eliminated from the CL for finishing third in their respective groups.
This format will also cascade down to the EL2. The runners-up in each group in the EL2 will face the third-placed group teams from the EL to decide who reaches the last 16 of the EL2.
The main thing is that the EL winners will still have a CL place up for grabs which will continue to interest the ‘bigger’ clubs. Incidentally, the EL2 winners are rewarded with a place in the following season’s EL.
At the moment, the EL group stage consists of 12x bands of four teams in each – a total of 48 teams. For many teams, there is much travel time, playing time, and increased fatigue leading to higher risk of injuries involved with a current EL campaign.
UEFA have improved the EL in recent years, no doubt, but the changes to come in 2021 make it possible for the competition to return to the glory days it enjoyed as the UEFA Cup. The teams from the lower-ranked countries will now do battle in EL2, leaving the EL to grow in stature and standard one again.
Of course, every team wants to be involved in the CL on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but the EL’s ever-improving reputation means the stigma attached to playing your European football on Thursday nights may soon be a thing of the past.