The complexities between Europe's top 2 tournaments
As they say, everything has a first time. Last season was the first time Manchester United crashed out of the group stages (after a really long time), and the first time City qualified for the Champions League. But want something bigger? The moment finally arrived a week ago, as sadly, Chelsea suffered the humiliation of becoming the first defending champions of the UEFA Champions League to bow out at the very first hurdle. They finished third in the group, missing out by one away goal on a head-to-head with Shakthar (tied at 4-4 on head-to-head aggregate, Shakthar scored 2 goals at Stamford Bridge compared to Chelsea’s solitary goal at The Donbass Arena) for second spot, which would have seen them through. Talk about every goal being crucial! So where does that leave them? The answer – in the confusing echelons of the Europa League (Thursday Night, Channel 5 chants anyone?).
The Europa League has been a punch bag ever since its early days under the name of ‘UEFA Cup’. Some have glorified it, while others have lambasted it. The so called ‘small’ clubs relish playing in the competition as they feel it gives them a chance to showcase themselves in a ‘European’ competition, and possibly get close to the title (Fulham – a classic example) or even win it, while how to view it has always been a part of discussion for the ‘big’ clubs. In the aftermath of Manchester’s twin collapse last season, some of their players, even one of the managers, commented on the Europa League being a “punishment” for crashing out of the group stages of the Champions League.
Among all these highly debated opinions, can we pause for a while and look at how UEFA thinks? What is their ideology, when it comes to deciding the participants for the Europa League?
8 teams from the Champions League drop into the Europa League in December. They join 24 clubs in round two. At this juncture, one can already deduce that the Europa League has one extra round than its more lucrative counterpart. Perhaps, this is the reason for the widespread criticism? You play an extra round of games in a hectic schedule that affects the players. And the prize for winning it is not too huge either. Keeping the financial aspects aside, one can only get to play in the Super Cup game the following season and bask in the glory of being called “Europe’s ‘Other’ Champion club”. Does a big club, which feel it deserves to challenge for the Champions League every year, really want that? The answer is a big NO. They would rather take it on the chin, and bounce back in the following year, rather than travel half the continent for half a season in quest of a title they really do not want. UEFA seems rather confused as well. They would surely want their big names to do well, and also give smaller clubs a chance. Testament to this fact is that UEFA considers FA Cup winners and runners up, (even League Cup winners in England) and fairplay coefficients while deciding the Europa League participants initially, and not just league positions. Cup game giant-killers earning their reward, one may think. But, in spite of these efforts, it just does not seem to be working.
Else, how would one explain the current scenario? 3rd place in the Champions League group takes a club to Europa League round of 32, 4th place is a total exit from Europe. This stage seems fair enough. But next stage is where it heats up. Losing in the Champions League round of 16 also puts one out of Europe completely, as does losing in further rounds. So, logically speaking, the group stage basement clubs are as non deserving of European football as clubs that bow out in the round of 16. Then why give the 3rd placed teams a direct ticket when arguably the ‘more able’ or ‘better’ teams that crash out in the next stage are dumped out totally? Can’t the same logic be extended to those who exit in the quarterfinals? Or even semis for that matter. The disappointment of reaching the latter knockout stages and coming away with nothing can perhaps be compensated by offering a chance to win another tournament, albeit a slightly ‘lower level’ one. Convincing enough?
If not convinced yet, then take a look at an example – Celtic. The game against Barcelona made all the difference. Barring a remarkable upset, they will almost certainly get knocked out in the round of 16. Out of Europe totally. Fair deal for beating Barcelona (or any other big club for that matter)? Don’t they deserve a crack at the Europa League at least for their efforts?
Thus in an ideal scenario, one would want the teams that get knocked out in the advanced Champions League rounds to contest for a similar position in its lower counterpart. Strangely, this idea has not been looked at, yet. The following could be a proposed format taking these arguments into consideration, even though it seems like a problem of combinatorics. Follow the logic and it will be seem crystal clear.
The round of 16 of the Europa League can have the losing Champions League quarterfinalists entering it. That would mean, 12 of the previous participants of Europa League advance. Thus, it would mean 24 teams in the previous round. Included among theses 24 are 8 losing teams from the Champions League round of 16. Thus, 16 teams that originally started the campaign from the Europa League group stages still remain. This erases the notion, if you have formed one by now, that the format is littered with UCL rejects. Those who do not make it past the Champions League group stages, are taken out of the equation completely.
Perhaps, UEFA has given it a consideration, but faced logistic problems in scheduling. That seems to be the only possible explanation for the continued implementation of the strange “3rd place” rule, while a more logical format exists on paper. The proposal written above must surely be better than the strange 64 teams, winner-takes-all European competition that UEFA has in the pipeline. Readers, agree?
The above proposal has the following advantages. It gives a fair deal to both sets – those who have started the season in Europa League, and those who “were” in the Champions League. It is also more logical than the current format. The disadvantage only seems to be in the scheduling aspect. ‘Stronger’ sides, having become victims to unforeseen giant killing acts, may have it all too easy. This one is up for debate.
What do the readers think? Do you agree with what is written? Or is this writer being too critical of the system?
Would it be better to have a full fledged segregation of both the tournaments, keeping it simple, and stopping this mix and match act?
Please put your thoughts in the comments section.