The Europa League, formerly known as the UEFA Cup and prior to that, way back in the midst of time, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, will always be an underdog of a competition. That is not up for dispute. That’s just the way it is.
A fixture of Thursday nights, it has to fight that little bit harder for attention, usually with teams beyond the elite, and it has never helped its cause that Champions League sides parachute into the tournament halfway through as compensation for coming third in their group.
Thankfully, UEFA have recently put a stop to that, the format ending in 2024/25.
It also hasn’t helped that Sevilla seemingly wins the Europa League each and every season. Not that there is anything wrong with Sevilla.
Moreover, this is a competition that has a very famous big brother, the Champions League hogging all the limelight and the glamour. It is therefore football’s Stephen Baldwin. Liam Hemsworth at a push.
This year though, as its much more celebrated older sibling whittles itself down in predictable fashion to the same old semi-finalists, the infinitely cooler Europa League is heading for a vintage campaign, throwing up a plethora of possibilities that excite.
After losing on penalties in last season’s final, Jose Mourinho’s Roma presently look nailed on in the Europa League betting to progress again to the last 16, their credentials even stronger this time out with a revived Romelu Lukaku firing a bountiful supply of goals. I Giallorossi have been highly impressive to date and should be fancied to go deep.
The same applies to Bayer Leverkusen, the Bundesliga’s surprise package this term who are currently unbeaten ten games in and topping the mighty Bayern.
Blitzing their way through Group H, Xabi Alonso’s cleverly assembled collective look set to win silverware in some form this year which would be an extremely welcomed development for the ‘Nearly Men’ of European football. What a story it would be if Europa success came their way.
Then there’s Real Betis and Atalanta, both group leaders at this juncture and both never less than a delight to watch.
It would simply be a joy if either side won a continental honour with Manuel Pellegrini or Gian Piero Gasperini respectively at the helm, if only for the roller-coaster football they have bestowed on us in recent times.
But of course, the bulk of our attention lies with the British sides, all four of which – to varying degrees – are still very much in the reckoning.
Rangers have the most to do of the domestic quartet, with a crucial must-win against Sparta Prague on the near horizon.
Liverpool, meanwhile, are the deserved favourites to go on and add another European trophy to their sparkling historic haul. With Jurgen Klopp’s revamped Reds approaching their formidable best, and Mo Salah persistently the man to back in the live betting, they are unquestionably the team to beat.
Brighton too remain a fascinating proposition, Roberto De Zerbi’s innovative set-up casting a spell over the Premier League and now doing likewise to the ilk of Ajax.
All of which leaves West Ham, a club that rightly and wonderfully wildly celebrated their Conference League success last term. Just imagine the scenes at the London Stadium should they replicate that achievement, but one step up.
It feels exceedingly likely that at least one from the British contingent will reach the semi-finals minimum come the spring, and that will ensure extended coverage of the Europa League and interest in it.
Across the board though this is shaping up to be an enthralling competition. Perhaps, in due course, the pick of the bunch.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to Alamy*