For a while now, at varying stages, the 3rd placed finishers in the group stage of the Champions League have entered the Europa League. UEFA’s aim is to promote the smaller tournament by giving it higher quality teams as well as to give some of the bigger teams a longer shot at European glory. The first few years have been successful, allowing the later stages to be watched by a higher number of viewers and increasing the quality of football. However, there are a few people who believe the quality of football is already good enough at this stage of the tournament as well as saying that teams shouldn’t be allowed two shots at Europe once they’ve qualified for a group stage. With the tournament resuming this week, I believe it’s time to take a look at the debate in more detail and allow you to make your own mind up on it.
Before looking at the arguments for and against, it is worth taking a look at the records of Champions League sides in the Europa League. To define, by UCL sides I mean sides that have qualified for or entered at the Champions League group stage. This does not include sides that lost in any of the qualifying rounds for the UCL and qualified for the Europa League as a result. Since the tradition of entry into the UEFA Cup following a third-placed finish in the UCL group stages began in 1999-2000 there has only been four years when any side that dropped down has failed to make the final. Despite this, in each of these years one side progressed to the semi-finals. So that means in every year since it began at least one side from the UCL has graced the semi-finals. Is it fair to say they dominate? Yes, to an extent the bigger sides do. However, in the 15 seasons it has been a part of the competition only 6 UCL sides have lifted the trophy. Four of these finals were UCL sides beating other UCL sides, so the general rule is that sides who stay in the competition for the longest tend to win it.
It is apparent early on that there are positives to this arrangement. Chelsea used the drop into the “ugly sister” of European competitions to great effect by winning the competition to boost their trophy cabinet. Viewing figures are increasing year on year, a probable result of the higher calibre of sides dropping down following the increase of quality in Europe as a whole. Champions League groups are competitive as a rule, so finishing third is not usually an embarrassment and therefore you should be allowed to continue in European competitions. Backing this theory up is the fact that recent entrants include Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid. Benfica, the most successful European side to have never won a trophy, have fallen into the competition 5 times, two of which ended in the final and one in the semi-finals.
As a case study, the 2009-10 Europa League is a perfect example of how clubs are still competitive with the UCL sides thrown in. Fulham reached the final by beating Juventus and Wolfsburg along the way. Both sides had finished third in their respective Champions League groups. The other UCL sides that year were Liverpool, Unirea, Marseille, Rubin Kazan, Standard Liege and Atlético. Four made the quarter finals while only Liverpool and Atlético made the semi’s, with Atlètico going on to win. This only happened because Fulham lost energy following their run and the extra time period. This year does not stand-alone; the majority of the Europa League sides are competitive when playing UCL ones however the quality of the UCL does usually shine through eventually.
The way I see it, the UCL sides are mainly split into three categories. The first, boasting sides such as City and United, don’t take it seriously and use it as a European competition to play fringe players and good youth prospects. Sides such as Benfica, Shakthar Donetsk and Atlético have used it to improve their European pedigree to get favourable UCL group stage draws in the future whilst the final category (Rangers, Celtic etc) are clearly not good enough for the Champions League and always aimed to take a stab at the Europa League instead. It appears to me that the second and third groups actively promote and enhance the UEL whilst the first stunts it. How then, do you rid or improve the first group while retaining the second and third and keeping the competition open to those who have been in it from the start?
One of the main reasons for UCL sides not being overly successful in the secondary competition is because there have been little incentives for them to participate in it. Of the 6 winners, I would class only Chelsea as a side who broke the mould of their stature. The bigger sides, such as Chelsea, usually don’t want to risk participation in Europe’s secondary competition harming their league bid for the UCL through injury and fixture congestion. To fix this problem, UEFA have now handed UCL qualification automatically to the winners of the UEL. This was a wonderful move as it has made every participating team take it more seriously. However, it would appear unfair if a side that wasn’t good enough for this year’s UCL qualify for next years simply by winning a different European competition. If UEFA are serious about keeping the big sides in and interested in the Europa League then they should take into consideration the possibility of reducing the knockout ties to one leg.
Now we’ve had a brief look at how these sides help the Europa League, how do they hinder it? Well the main idea to stem from this thought is the apparent unfairness to sides participating in the Europa League from the start, as I’ve touched briefly upon numerous times already. To back this up, I take my line of argument from the 2004-05 UEFA Cup. Sporting Lisbon reached the final that year, beating Feyenoord, Middlesbrough, Newcastle and AZ along the way. All of those sides had competed in the Europa League group stage yet the side that Sporting lost to in the final, CSKA, hadn’t. Coincidentally, CSKA didn’t face a fellow UCL side at all during their time in the Europa League. This reaffirms my belief that sides deserve a fair shot at succeeding in the tournament they qualified for rather than losing to a side that failed in their initial competition. There is something not right about a side winning a tournament who weren’t present when the first round proper began. Before you throw the FA Cup argument at me, the first round is more like the second first qualifying round – many agree the competition doesn’t really begin until the third round, plus the Premier League and Championship sides haven’t been previously involved in a parent competition.
With the introduction of qualification for the champions league on offer for the winners came the widely held belief that sides would now play full strength teams throughout the tournament. If this is true and in the next few years the UCL sides dominate then all this will do is stunt the growth of sides that regularly qualify for the final stages of the UEL but meet the dropouts and lose. Rather than be incentive for clubs to improve and grow in European stature, it will allow the great to get better and the good to stagnate. For a side like Everton, it was a valid way to test ourselves in the Champions League qualification however now with the introduction of Liverpool, Roma and Sporting Lisbon, all of whom have good enough squads to win and incentive to, the job has got so much harder. Is that fair? Well, not really – especially on Wolfsburg, second in the Bundesliga but facing Lisbon in the first knockout round of the Europa League. Of course, UEFA will argue the best will always rise to the top and if that happens to be one of the Europa League group qualifiers then the system works.
Could the Europa League progress without the introduction at this stage of the UCL sides? Well, logistically the tweak would be to let the 8 best third placed finishers from the groups qualify for the next round and as a knock-on effect let the 8 best second placed sides be seeded. I believe that third placed finishers should be rewarded in some shape or form; however dropping them into a completely different competition seems a little unfair (despite the coupling of the two being increased by the new prize for the winners). Logistically it would work fine, so how about financially? It’s difficult to say what impact the Champions League sides actually have upon the finances and viewing figures of the EL. It’s clear that there is some positive impact however with the increasing stature of the competition plus increasing quality of football being played, it’s realistic to say that their effect is negligible, even without the figures in front of me. The major problem for the Europa League is the negative press it receives and placing failed Champions League sides does nothing but maximise that. UEFA should be brave enough to allow it to stand on its own two feet and show the world just what a competitive and quality competition it is.
I believe there is little need for UCL sides in the Europa League once the Champions League group stage has kicked off. At that point, the two competitions should be kept separate, as this would allow the sides in the Europa League to flourish and win some silverware. Under my proposed change, Sevilla, Wolfsburg, Villarreal and Tottenham would all be seeded in the first knockout round along with the likes of Inter Milan, Feyenoord, Napoli and Everton. Would this be such a bad thing? The quarter-final line up could well be those 8 teams, and the majority of them wouldn’t look out of place in a Champions League group. By dropping Champions League sides into this competition, UEFA degrade it when there is no apparent need to.
Of course, like every scenario there are positives and the point of this article was to highlight the key arguments for both sides. It is wonderful that sides remain competitive; proving the gap between the two tournaments is not big by any stretch, yet that competition could be being stretched by the extra incentive this year. On the other hand, the better players could raise the game of sides such as Napoli, Inter and Sevilla improving the competition further. In truth, the UCL sides both hinder and help the competition in different ways. What is for sure is that the next few years will tell us whether their continued inclusion will allow the Europa League to grow or stagnate. This debate isn’t one for now, yet one for five years time.
Keep tuned for updates on how the knockout rounds progress.