Thursday, October 24, 2013

Lots of reasons to love the Europa League

There are 3 qualifying rounds (starting in early July), a playoff round, 12 groups of 4, a knockout stage involving 32 teams all head of a final in May - which this year takes place at Juventus' stadium.

Welcome to UEFA's Europa League.

It seems like a lot of games, but having replaced the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup, you'd have to expect that there would be an avenue for every country in Europe to be able to field a side in European club competition.

And nobody expects the teams from Andorra or San Marino to make the group stages, let alone the knockout stages. But they are entitled to get their chance.

Having played with pros who represented Wales playing for Total Network Solutions (now TNS or The New Saints), they have told me of how great the experience was, how it was their only chance to really play in big stadiums against really good, even great, players.

And it's not just great for the players, the clubs and fans get to see sides they would otherwise never face - a trip to Croatia, a Thursday night in Bilbao or a long weekend in Latvia, all sound great. I'm not saying Manchester United fans get bored of playing Barcelona or Bayern Munich, but the Champions League has become a little repetitive. And the way they're going, United may even jump at the chance of the Europa League next year!

People say Jermain Defoe loves the competition. But let's be harsh/critical/honest here - it's one of the only chances he gets to play a whole game. There are the FA Cup games, League Cup and a few substitute appearances, but not too much more these days. The Europa League gives bigger teams the chance to try out their youngsters, rehab players from injuries and get people back into form.

It's not a reserves league though. The competition is strong, with Porto, Atletico Madrid (twice) and Chelsea winning the tournament - I'm sure players like Falcao and Fernando Torres appreciate it and display the medals - and you know Rafa Benitez does.

It doesn't get the respects it deserves, and maybe the Thursday night takes its toll on teams for the following weekend, but it's interesting, compelling and exciting European football.

If only I could find somewhere to watch it!