Formally known as the UEFA Cup from 1971 to 2009, the UEFA Europa League is Europe’s second largest club competition involving top clubs from more distinct areas around the continent who’ve missed out on a place in the Champions League. The Europa League is bigger in terms of teams participating, with 160 in total when you take qualifying into account, but won’t see teams anywhere near as prestigious.
The competition has been looked down on by most of the football world for years now because of the attraction towards the Champions League, however, a lot of focus has recently been tilted towards Thursday night football. This is partly to do with the increase in huge teams entering the competition in the past few years, but mainly because of the winners earning a place in the Champions League the following season since 2014.
Manchester United took full advantage of this privilege in the 2016-17 campaign, taking trips to the likes of FC Rostov and Zorya Luhansk deadly serious in order to go on and win the whole competition for the very first time – resulting in a place in the 2017-18 group stage which they failed to achieve from their league position. The trophy José Mourinho and co. received was the iconic Coupe UEFA, designed and produced by GDE Bertoni, weighing a stunning 15kg. And not only are you awarded a fine-looking trophy for coming out on top, but a hefty £5.7m fee is paid out to the victorious club.
Clubs from as low as rank 54 in the UEFA country coefficient have been allowed into Europa League qualifying, but the lesser teams are allowed far less places than more advanced countries like England and France. The majority of clubs that qualify for the competition are those who finished as high as you possibly could in the league without gaining Champions League status, however, some countries offer a route through domestic cup competition.
For example, the winners of England’s EFL Cup are placed in the third round of qualifying like we’ve seen in the past from unlikely contenders Swansea City and Birmingham City. There can be as many as four teams from each of the top countries playing in the tournament at once, but on most occasions, there are only one to three – this can depend on factors like what other teams in your domestic division do as well as the former rule of Financial Fair Play.
The qualifying process for the UEFA Europa League is the same as the Champions League, apart from the considerably more teams involved, with three rounds and then a play-off. The play-off round is where you start to see the some of the quality come into play, as the 15 losers from Champions League qualifying feature, and at the end of it there are 48 teams in the group stages to make up 12 groups of four. From then on, each team plays the other three in their group twice and the top two at the end will proceed to the Round of 32 which is the first two-legged knock-out round out of a possible four.
Spanish outfits haven’t just been dominating the Champions League for years now, but the Europa League seems to have a home in Spain as well. Sevilla have made the trophy their own since 2014, winning it three years on the bounce from then until 2016 and have won it five times overall. On top of their five Champions League honours, Liverpool also hold three Europa League victories alongside welcome company in Italian duo Inter Milan and Juventus. Those wins were decades go though, and the title has been almost permanently in Spain because of Atlético’s dominance in 2010 and 2012, while Chelsea and of course Manchester United are the most recent English winners – the former took the 2013 crown against SL Benfica.
As mentioned, Atlético Madrid soared to the Europa League glory in 2010 and 2012 – a big part of that was to do with Radamel Falcao’s brilliance in his prime and still holds the record for the most goals scored in a single campaign, a phenomenal 17. Ex-Sweden international Henrik Larsson is the tournament’s record goalscorer, bagging 40 in 56 during his stints at Feyenoord, Celtic and Helsingborgs IF but is closely followed by Klaas-Jan Huntelaar on 34. So there’s proof that even though the Champions League is rightfully more attractive, the UEFA Europa League has had its fair share of superstars as well and will only continue to grow.