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Can the Europa League live up to the hype?

In recent weeks it has been called an embarrassment to be in and in recent seasons managers have fielded weakened sides to save their players for matters deemed more important.

The tournament organisers will tell you otherwise but the Europa League seems to have become the League Cup of the continent.

With a longer schedule in place since the rebranding of the tournament and the increased popularity of the Champions League the competition has been left behind for those switching their TV’s on for European action.

Friday's draw for the round of 32 will have given the tournament a boost with some exciting ties on the agenda, but as it comes six months after the first qualifying round it highlights the need for change.

The fact that it takes almost a half a year to get any feeling about the competition shows why managers and fans don’t hold it in the highest regard, and that’s still with two months left before the fixtures take place.

Air of excitement

With ties such as Ajax v Man United, Man City taking on holders Porto and Valencia visiting the Britannia, it’s easy to see why there’s an air of excitement - but if UEFA had not been so eager for change, the competition may well be regarded as highly now as it used to be.

Only a decade ago the Europa League, or the UEFA Cup to give it it’s former and proper name, was as difficult to win as the Champions League.

With fewer spaces available for qualification to Europe’s elite competition it meant some of the strongest sides on the continent were vying for the title and with a less hectic schedule it was regarded with more pride.

Speaking of schedules, not every game back then was followed by a domestic encounter on a Sunday. Where as a Saturday 3pm kick off is ideal for football purists, the same kick-off time 24 hours later is dull, dreary and untelevised.

Supporters don’t appear to be as enthusiastic for Sunday kick offs, perhaps as they are being forced into changing their own agenda.

Peak condition

Having fixtures changed to a Tuesday or Wednesday night in between Champions League weeks would not only keep supporters interest in the Europa League alive, it would also keep the watching world's interest in peak condition.

The extended schedule has resulted in their being many whipping boys in the tournament and with it some predictable results.

With a shortened version there would be less chance for games to be easily readable and still add some drama to the event.

As daft as it may sound, and with no disrespect to Channel Five or ITV4, since the UEFA Cup was taken off the BBC the interest from the British public has waned. The last time the BBC broadcast the tournament was Liverpool’s 2001 victorious treble winning season when they beat Alaves in a thrilling final.

Since then there have been two English sides in the final with only the final itself being broadcast on terrestrial television for all to watch. It was the same when Rangers followed Middlesbrough and Fulham’s example in 2008.

Reserve ITV channels

Fulham’s defeat to Atletico Madrid and Sevilla’s victory over Middlesbrough were the only games neutral supporters saw as their runs to the final were left for the reserve ITV channels to pick up the pieces.

When Liverpool won the trophy in 2001 they had to beat some of European football's toughest opponents.

After beating Roma, Olympiacos, Porto and Barcelona they faced Alaves in Dortmund. That was when exiting the competition at an early stage was considered understandable as the standard of opponent was much tougher than those ten years on.

So, all in all, if Michel Platini is reading this all that is needed to restore the credibility of the Europa League is fewer games, better calibre of teams and move it back to the BBC, then the Champions League would again have a sibling worth worrying about.

Not hard, really.

By Michael Williams


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