Europa League remains an inconvenience
8 August ~ In February 2009, Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill sent a shadow squad to Russia for the second leg of a UEFA Cup tie against CSKA Moscow. Villa's reserves lost 2-0, and the fans who had travelled from England moaned about "lack of respect". O'Neill refused to apologise. Eventually, Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner organised an appeasement dinner for the disappointed supporters, earning himself plenty of positive press. Aston Villa are no longer in a position to throw away European ties, and Lerner has lost most of that goodwill, but the careless attitude that O'Neill's squad selection exemplified still persists.
Last week Liverpool and Internazionale kicked off their Europa League campaigns with wins over FC Gomel and Hajduk Split. A sense of nothingness pervaded both matches. Liverpool and Inter are arguably the two most glamorous teams in this year's competition, but neither seems bothered.
Most elite teams would prefer not to qualify for the Europa League, and smaller clubs consider the tournament a chore. It is nightmarishly long, horribly convoluted and exhausting for the players. A competition for the title of Best Team In Europe That Couldn't Qualify For Or Was Eliminated From The Champions League fails to set pulses racing.
All the Europa League can offer is novelty. The Champions League knockout rounds, particularly the semi-finals, have become predictable: Real Madrid, Barcelona, an English club and a German or Italian team regularly make up the final four.
The Europa League often throws up original matches like Fulham v Juventus or Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao. But Juventus's defeat at Craven Cottage came when they were still navigating a post-Calciopoli slump, and Manchester United were playing because Basel knocked them out of the Champions League.
The only way to bring prestige to the Europa League would be to shrink the Champions League, forcing teams such as Arsenal, Milan or Bayern Munich down a level. That's never going to happen because modern football is about money and the Champions League is arguably the most blatant manifestation of that phenomenon. UEFA's challenge is to change the way coaches and players think about the competition, but structural improvements won't necessarily help.
One solution would be to grant the Europa League winners a berth in the following season's Champions League. Teams such as Aston Villa and managers such as Harry Redknapp, who last season labeled Spurs' Europa League match against PAOK Salonika a "nuisance", might take the competition more seriously. For now the Europa League remains a tournament nobody wants to play in. David Yaffe-Bellany