Tonight, the first legs of the Europa League are being played out around Europe. The competition has reached the knockout stages, but is it as interesting as its older and more coveted sibling, the Champions League? Can it ever claim to be as good as the Champions League?
The tournament went through a revamp in at the start of the 2009/10 season. A change of format plus the addition of 16 new teams into the main competition increased the number of groups required. From 2015/16 season, the champions will automatically go into the following seasons Champions League. But does it come close to the Champions League?
Let's compare the level of fixtures from this week. Arsenal v Bayern Munich, Manchester City v Barcelona, AC Milan v Atletico Madrid and PSG v Bayer Leverkusen. At least six of the biggest footballing teams in Europe all featured.
Tonight's Europa League games see Juventus, Valencia, Tottenham, Napoli, Lyon, Porto, Ajax and Fiorentina all play. That sounds impressive but they are playing teams such as Chornomorets Odesa, Ludogorets Razgrad, Esbjerg, PAOK Salonika and Trabzonspor. Not exactly big household names.
This has been one of the main turning off points. Whilst the increase in competitors is great for the smaller nations in Europe, they don't normally get very far. Juventus cannot claim that they will be able to pull in a similar audience than Arsenal did against Bayern. The biggest tie of tonight is either Dynamo Kiev v Valencia or Swansea v Napoli. It's not exactly must see action.
If we compare Swansea's season this year to last year, we can see how much of a distraction the tournament is. Last year, the Swans finished 9th in the league and won the Capital One Cup. This year, they have really struggled to balance all the tournaments they are involved in. Whilst they have done well to reach the knock out stages, their performance in the league leaves them four points away from the relegation zone.
Newcastle also found the Europa League a distraction last season. A fantastic 5th place finish got them into the tournament, but could only finish in 16th place last year with the extra matches having an effect on the players.
With the extra games being played, it means that the season starts earlier. The first qualification games for this year's competition took place on the 2nd of July, only 6 weeks after Chelsea lifted the trophy. This means that the summer breaks are cut short to prepare for the important games.
The increase in teams has also increased the distance that teams have to travel. Flying around Europe to obscure towns for 90 minutes of football is tiring for the players. Also fans have to take time off work if they want to attend the game, plus there is the factor of getting out and finding somewhere to stay.
On the flip side of all this, the introduction of new teams give the smaller nations teams a chance to show what they can do. For example, two teams playing tonight, Ludogorets Razgrad from Bulgaria and FC Chornomorets Odesa from Ukraine overcame Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven to reach the knockout stages. Their reward is ties against Lazio and Lyon respectively.
These games, although unlikely to be close contests, will produce extra revenue for the clubs. To have a team as well known as Lazio or Lyon come to your local team is a massive opportunity for the locals to witness top European sides, which they will remember for years to come.
British clubs have found the Europa League to be a relatively successful opportunity to shine. Fulham were galvanised by their opportunity to appear, reaching the final after starting in the third qualifying round. Victories against Hamburg, Wolfsburg and the shock win over Juventus are still remember fondly around Craven Cottage.
Liverpool have reached the semi finals, and Chelsea managed to go one step further than Fulham and win last year, thanks to Branislav Ivanovic's late header against Benfica. The celebration scenes were similar to those witnessed only 12 months before, when they won the Champions League.
Winning the European trophy still means a lot to the competing clubs, as demonstrated by Chelsea last year. The Europa League gives those unfortunate enough to fall out of the Champions League another chance of silverware.
So while some games may feature really obscure teams, and involve travelling thousands of miles, the rewards for the winners are worth it. For those who don't succeed, the pain of defeat doesn't last for long. It all starts again before the winners can let it sink in.
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