In the past the Europa League has been a competition that hasn’t really been taken seriously by many of the English public. However, with the calibre of clubs in it this season, especially since the third-placed teams in the Champions League dropped down, there is a quality in the Europa League that deserves a certain level of prestige, despite it being the secondary European competition behind the Champions League. It is clear that the biggest club competition in world football will be at the forefront of most people’s minds, but the Europa League definitely has enough about it to command respect.
Among the clubs in the competition at this stage, there is Atletico Madrid who are still unbeaten in La Liga after 16 games, Napoli who sit top of Serie A, Celtic who went on a 69 game unbeaten run in Scotland and the top three teams in Russia. That is even without adding massive names such as Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Lazio and Arsenal into the mix.
Alongside these giants there are multiple narratives which can be followed. There are the two Belgrade clubs –Red Star and Partizan- who have shown the power of Serbian football in the same year that their nation qualified for the World Cup, FC Astana have reached the knockout rounds for the first time in their history, Ostersund continue their incredible ascent, there are two Red Bull-owned sides –Leipzig and Salzburg- still in the tournament and FCSB continue to progress on the pitch after the controversy off of it.
When looking at the fixtures for the Round of 32, there is a real variety of ties. There are games such as Napoli against RB Leipzig and Celtic versus Zenit St. Petersburg where two big clubs collide, which should provide a real spectacle. Then, on the other hand, there are matches with great stories behind them, such as Graham Potter taking his Ostersund side to the Emirates to face off against the Gunners and then there’s Atalanta who have entertained Europa League audiences this season facing off against Borussia Dortmund, who often thrill spectators with the Yellow Wall and an exciting style of play.
In the group stages Arsenal played a heavily weakened side, Lazio often rested their star man Ciro Immobile and some big players were absent across the tournament. However, there is the lure of an automatic Champions League place for next season and the opportunity to get one over on giants of the game for all clubs involved. This will surely be enough for clubs across the board to put out their big game players. In past tournaments, it can be said that there was a lack of competitiveness in certain matches, but there should be no problems with that this time around.
There is also the prospect of upsets. This has already been the case this season with Everton, Hertha Berlin and Hoffenheim all eliminated from the group stages and Ajax not even making it that far. Ludogorets have done incredibly well so far and will face an AC Milan side who have struggled at times, Dynamo Kyiv will be expected to beat AEK Athens although despite winning just once the Greek side didn’t actually lose in the group stages and CSKA Moscow will be confident of defeating Red Star Belgrade, but the Serbians have proved formidable opponents to this point.
There is a lot more to the Europa League than word of mouth and even the highlight shows will have you believe; it really does have everything this year. Many people have and always will turn their nose up at the competition, but when the knockout stages commence in February you should definitely give it a chance. Anyway, there’s not much else to do on a Thursday night.