I haven’t wanted to criticise the Europa League. Honestly I haven’t.
I loved the Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Cup. I have soft sports for many clubs who play at Europa League level. And there is undoubtedly something heartwarming about a club breaking through to play in Europe. The potential for fans to dream, to follow team over land and sea. From my country England it’s been Wigan and Swansea this season and you won’t find their fans complaining about European football, whatever the standard.
But the damage is often to clubs with bigger ambitions whose seasons buckle under the strain. The over-bloated format is absurd. The unnecessary aspect of incorporating losers from the Champions League at the round of 32 grates. UEFA have made it a hard competition to respect. the ugly little brother of the confident, sophisticated Champions League.
But then this season’s Europe League took off.
The second legs of the round of 32 provided the most entertaining hour of football highlights in one package for many months.
Napoli came from behind to end Swansea’s commendable run and Tottenham’s excellent fightback from a desperate position against Ukrainians Dnipro at White Hart lane. Spurs scored three times midway through the second half, with Adebayor outstanding.
The hidden gem came in Bulgaria. Ludogorets, unheralded beyond the city of Razgrad in the north east of the country, beat Lazio in an encounter that needed to be seen to be believed.
Having surprisingly won an eventful first leg 1-0 in Rome, they didn’t exactly start well on their own turf. 1-0 down after 17 seconds. 90 minutes later, after a spectacular slugfest, Ludogerets had forced a 3-3 draw. A 4-3 to win to, forgive the description, put them on the map.
And when the dust settled suddenly there was a last 16 line-up to savour. Admittedly not Bayern or Barca, Real or Atletico, PSG or Chelsea, but what we have got is matches that really mean something.
If only other business hadn’t kept me from Seville where a mouthwatering derby took place between Sevilla and Betis. It’s wonderful to see Betis, whom I’ve followed since their emergence to take on the might of Real and Barca in the 90s, forget their troubles (bottom of La Liga).
But those who were there tell me the noise was incredible. You don’t need me to tell you what a derby like this means to a football-mad city like this. Joy of joys, Betis won the away leg 2-0. With one of their scorers going by the name of Sevilla. You couldn’t make it up.
Tottenham’s relief at getting past Dnipro would appear to be short-live. Beaten 3-1 at home by Benfica, they look on the way out. Again it showed the competition’s ability to surprise. Tottenham may look ordinary under Tim Sherwood but did you expect such an emphatic defeat?
A good night for Portugal. Porto beat Napoli 1-0 in a match between teams with enough quality to make a mark in the Champions League. The second leg in front of the passionate Italian support may well be the match of the night.
Or will it be elsewhere in Italy? Because talking of teams who probably should be in the Champions League Juventus were held 1-1 at home. By their great rival Fiorentina.
The Europa League has a chance, albeit small, to emerge properly and shed some of its inferiority. A strong winner this season, to follow impressive Chelsea last year can provide a platform. Then next season there is finally a route to the Champions League for the winners.
It’s this carrot that might appeal to clubs like Manchester United should they qualify for the Europa League. Because if they do, I’m not sure how the Glazers will feel about Europa League qualifiers potentially affecting participation in glamorous matches in the United States, or interfering with the start of the new season. It even crossed my mind United might consider refusing a place. Is it really too far-fetched that a club would at least look into that, and the potential implications.
But that’s mere speculation. Let us enjoy the realities of this season’s competition. Ludogorets lost their first leg 3-0 at home to Valencia. The fairytale will end. But a disaster for them? Not at all. 20 per cent of the gate receipts went to charity. Now that’s a football club.
Earlier in the season I said ‘Thursday’s clubs are full of woe’ after the traditional old poem. The Editor of INSIDE chuckled that it would come back to bite me on the backside and as usual he is right. I am happy to look for the positive and embrace this season’s Europa League.
While Wednesday’s losers may be full of woe, Thursday’s clubs?
Maybe they don’t have so ‘far to go’ after all.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport