Both Manchester clubs earned vital victories in the Premier League yesterday, extending their lead at the top of the table, but they still have a long way to go to making up for their Champions League exits two weeks ago. The disappointment and humiliation was clear to see on that night and the lack of enthusiasm about the Europa League is becoming far too constant in the modern game.
Since the competition was rebranded in 2009 from the UEFA Cup, it has become the laughing stock of Europe and any big clubs that qualify for it seem to dismiss it with a weakened side and a lack of travelling fans. There are plenty of reasons for this and I believe they can be addressed with a new format and schedule of the competition.
The first issue with that is easily fixed is the lack of motivation to win to the tournament. Clubs such as PSG and Tottenham Hotspur both had a good chance of going a long way in the competition this year, but both fielded weak sides in the majority of their games and crashed out at the group stage. A massive incentive to take it seriously would be that either the winner, or both the winner and runner-up would automatically qualify for next seasons Champions League. The chance to play at the highest level in club football would excite any player in any team and would also bring in extra funds to please the hierarchy too. For a club like Fulham or Atletico Madrid, who made the final in previous years, to be entered in the Champions League is a life changing moment and the incentive would be clear to see for clubs such as Spurs who are desperate to return the biggest club competition in the world.
Another issue with the current set-up, and possibly the greatest issue is the Thursday night football. The late midweek games force clubs to play on Sunday’s each week which is not ideal for players and supporters, especially with other competition taking place on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s leaving a hectic schedule for the Europa teams. The solution is to play on alternate weeks from the Champions League so that games could be played earlier in the week and leave the clubs with a better chance of recovery over the week, especially travelling all over Europe. The chance to play on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s would also attract Sky to buy the rights for every game, as they do with Champions League, which will make it more attractive for supporters and clubs both financially and respectfully. No team wants to play at 5.15 on Channel 5 do they?
Another unfair disadvantage for a Europa League team is that they can work extremely hard to make it through the group stage of the competition, only to face a Champions League third place side such as United or City in the knock out round. If a club is knocked out of the Champions League, they should not automatically go into the later stages of the Europa. A Champions League side that has just been entered in the knock out draw in the Europa League will more than likely win the tournament so what is the point in the smaller clubs playing their hearts out to not stand any chance of lifting the trophy. It is almost as if it is a new tournament from Christmas onwards, which makes it doubly hard for the smaller, progressing sides.
One final solution to the lack of competitiveness from certain clubs could be an application system. At Christmas every year each country could send in a certain number of applications from their clubs (depending on their ranking) and the team that finish the highest from them sides will qualify. This may seem a little outdated, but it would prevent teams such as Tottenham Hotspur from bothering with the tournament and give only the clubs who want to be in it the chance to have a go.
Some have questioned whether the group stages are a good idea or the tournament should revert to a straight knock-out cup, but I don’t believe that is the issue with clubs dismissing the tournament as a distraction. The lack of reward and inappropriate match days are more of an issue and something that can easily be sorted out. It is time to give every team a chance of winning it and it is definitely time for every club to take the competition seriously.
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