We are rapidly reaching the business end of the European football season and that means some scintillating ties ahead.
The Barcelona-Milan second leg match was fascinating. The Catalans were playing near-perfect football: a combination of quick passing, tactical genius and asphyxiating high-lined, high-pressure defending.
Yet, until the fourth goal went in, Milan only required a simple break to win the tie. It was European football at its best - a full house screaming the home team on, with the fear of the away goal looming above.
Why is it then that we have to wait until mid-February for the excitement to begin?
The answer in the Champions League is obviously ‘money’. In fairness, most of the group matches are competitive and the best-performing teams usually get through to the knock-out phase.
What about the Europa League, though? Despite a reduction in the number of group matches, clubs still have to play a minimum of fourteen matches to get to the final.
Furthermore, some of those matches involve teams who clearly struggle to compete.
Looking through the list of Europa League qualifiers, there is a clear trend. Clubs in this tournament tend to be those with a decent first XI, but no strength in depth.
Added to that, Europa League matches take place on a Thursday, resulting in teams which usually play on Saturdays falling out of sync with their rivals (e.g. Bundesliga, Eredivisie and Premier League clubs).
Consequently, the tournament is undervalued by coaches at least until the knock-out phase. They often pick second-string players for the group matches, as they focus on qualifying for the Champions League through their league position.
In turn, fans and TV spectators become demotivated.
All-in-all the sensation is one of football overkill. If we were to compare the Europa League to gastronomy, it’d be like eating ten fast-food burgers instead of one decent steak.
This is a great shame as the Europa League’s predecessors have produced some superb matches over the years. It gives football fans a chance to see some of the lesser-known sides across the continent.
In the days of three European tournaments, the UEFA Cup was seen as a more competitive tournament than the supposedly superior Cup Winners’ Cup, as it contained teams on the brink of success.
Also, while the Champions League provides us with the highest level of football played in the world, we often see the same match-ups - Barcelona and Milan have played each other six times in the last two seasons.
The formula to raise the importance of the Europa League is therefore simple. Firstly, bring back the two-legged knock-out ties throughout.
Secondly, award the eventual winner with a Champions League play-off spot the following season. Thirdly, where possible, play the matches on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the weeks when there are no Champions League matches.
Surely fewer but better-quality matches would raise the level of football, thus prestige and revenue.
image: © nicksarebi