Europa League in need of revamp


False Nine editor Hugo Greenhalgh reflects on the Super Cup and the future of the Europa League

Watching last night‘s Super Cup, it would be easy to mistake Atlético Madrid as the Champions of Europe. Chelsea may have won three in three in the Premier League, but they looked sluggish and uncoordinated in the Super Cup as Atlético, marshalled by a rampant Radamel Falcao, punished the London side in a 4-1 victory.

Falcao has continued Atlético Madrid’s recent trend of owning marvellous forwards. Like Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero before him, the Colombian provides goals in abundance but also has an element of magic to his game. Yet while ‘El Niño’ could only watch on in frustration at the Stade Louis II, ‘El Tigre’ was giving a master class in how to play the Number 9 role.

Fresh from scoring a hat-trick against Athletic Bilbao on Monday, Falcao scored three more in the first half against Chelsea. Each scored with his left foot, the first a chip, the second a delightful curled finish and the third poked through a helpless Petr Cech’s legs, Falcao gave a performance that justified claims he is the best centre forward in European football.

Yet while Falcao’s superb hat-trick received all the headlines, Atlético put on a team display of real quality that proved too much for Chelsea. Captain Gabi, Arda Turan and Adrián Lopez were all impressive, demonstrating the class and team spirit that saw the Spanish side lift the Europa League trophy in May.

So if the Europa League winners can comprehensively beat the Champions League winners, why are they not afforded a place in the most reputable of club competitions?

From the off, the incentives to be in the Europa League are limited. Qualification starts in the middle of summer when squads are unfit and team gelling may be a long way off. Due to UEFA’s all-encompassing nature, draws frequently feature sides in far-flung locations – see Liverpool’s recent adventure to FC Gomel of Belarus.

When the competition starts properly, fixtures are played on the oft-parodied Thursday night. For English clubs, this means tired players for their Saturday League games or an out of sync schedule of Sunday matches.  Tottenham Hotspur set an example last season of attempting to exit the tournament as quickly as possible; having already endured the trip to Rubin Kazan, Harry Redknapp’s consistent fielding of weakened sides saw Spurs fail to qualify for the next round. There was no incentive to win the competition, so better to concentrate on the top four finish in the Premier League.

Giving the Europa League winners a Champions League spot would certainly add an extra spice to the competition – surely the winners of this supposedly second-tier tournament deserve a chance at making the step up and not least Falcao, who has been the Europa League’s best performer with 29 goals in 29 appearances.

In defeating Chelsea, Atlético have proved they what they are capable of. They would be a far more competitive side in the Champions League than many of the sides who are in it this year. While Cypriot side APOEL FC surpassed expectations in reaching the Quarter Finals last season, the lesser sides of this year’s tournament will surely not fair so well. Atlético Madrid would represent an impressive and exciting opposition who have already shown they can battle it out with the European elite.

Of course it could cost the genuine ‘champions’ a place in the tournament. But in this age, the Champions League has become a competition for the very best sides in Europe. This is demonstrated by the use of the UEFA coefficient, in which the 3rd and 4th placed sides of Europe’s top leagues are considered on a par with the champions of other, lesser leagues. Last season, the Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb recorded the worst ever performance in the Champions League history, finishing with a goal difference of -22. In a competition of such prestige, such results undermine its integrity.

UEFA should revamp the Europa League and offer a place in the Champions League for its victors. Not only would this prevent clubs from the temptation of fielding a weakened side, but it would also offer a just reward for a competition that requires a side of true quality to lift the trophy.

Follow Hugo Greenhalgh on Twitter: @HugoGreenhalgh