For a football fan, the idea that you would want your team to get knocked out of a cup competition goes against all instincts. When you are a fan of a team that hasn’t won a major trophy for 35 years, to want them to lose seems positively barmy. Yet, a few hours before Manchester City’s Europa League last 16 match against Dynamo Kyiv, here I am, not exactly wishing them to lose, but equally, no more than half-heartedly wanting them to win.
And the reason for this: the competition itself – the Europa League. Or rather, the number of games a team has to play to win the bloody thing! This evening’s match with Kyiv will be City’s 12th in the competition, with a further five to come should they progress to the final in Dublin in May. That’s nearly half a Premier League programme of games for a competition that is distinctly second best to the Champions League.
Yet there are obvious ways in which UEFA could streamline and strengthen the Europa League, opportunities that they missed when revamping the UEFA Cup into the current half-baked format.
Let’s consider first the biggest gripe from fans, players and coaches: the number of matches. There are sensible ways in which UEFA could reduce the number of rounds in the tournament, whilst making it more attractive to paying spectators and broadcasters in the process. At present, after the end of the group stage in December, there are a further 9 games to play if a team wants to win the trophy – that is too many. There are currently 32 teams left in the competition after the group stage. That number should be reduced to at least 16 and preferably eight.
Ideally, the Europa League should move directly from the group stage to the quarter-finals. What is the best way to achieve this? Here’s one suggestion:
At present 48 teams compete in the group stage of the Europa League, with two teams progressing from each of the 12 groups of four; these 24 teams are then joined in the last 32 by the eight third-placed teams from the group stages of the Champions League. An alternative solution would be to add another knockout round prior to the group stage. This round would involve 56 teams (thereby increasing the total number of teams in the Europa League qualification rounds), enabling 28 teams to progress to the group stage.
Teams would then be divided into seven groups of four teams. The seven group winners would progress to the quarter-finals, as would (to borrow an excellent idea from Rugby Union’s Heineken Cup), the second-placed team with the best record. Another change from the current format would see the final two group stage matches played after the turn of the year, rather than before. For a side finishing fifth in the English Premier League, this potentially would mean two qualification rounds, a six-match group stage, quarter-final, semi-final, final – 15 matches in total, of which eight would be played before Xmas and seven after the turn of the year.
To compensate the eight teams who currently drop into the Europa League from the Champions League and who henceforth would be excluded from the former, I propose a new knockout tournament: the UEFA Shield, the winners of which could play the winners of the Europa League at the beginning of the following season. At stake would be the prize of qualification for the group stage of the Champions League.
Hypothetical 2011/12 fixture list for the fifth-placed English Premier League side if the Europa League were to be reformatted as suggested:
Europa League – Round 1
First leg: August 18
Second leg: August 25
Europa League – Round 2
First leg: September 15
Second leg: September 29
Europa League – Group Stage
Matchday 1: October 20
Matchday 2: November 3
Matchday 3: November 24
Matchday 4: December 8
Matchday 5: February 23
Matchday 6: March 8
First leg: March 22
Second leg: April 5
First leg: April 19
Second leg: May 3
Wednesday May 16