We can’t always rely on Liverpool and Manchester United to pop out of the hat one after the other. As the Europa League (finally) arrives at its business end, and we all sit up to take notice following the reds’ result against their old rivals, we take a look at what can be done to save Europe’s secondary cup competition. By Matt Crist.

It’s a situation many of us have found ourselves in: there’s someone you’ve been knocking around with for a while now, you see them out and about (but don’t actually like them very much)… and God help you if your mates see you in their company.

They think the world of you, though, and are always there for your every need. So, now and again, even though you think you can do better, you cave in. And, all along, you’re thinking that given half a chance you’d quite happily leave them at the bar if a better offer comes along… and they know it too. This isn’t a scenario that only exists in the likes of The Raz or The Krazy House, however, it exists in the world of football too – just on a Thursday night, instead of a Friday or Saturday, and goes by the name of the UEFA Europa League.

How has this fall from grace, that even a Gok Wan makeover wouldn’t be able to make attractive again, been allowed to happen to the joining together of two very historic competitions? Tournaments that have provided some of the most memorable moments for football fans down the years – the UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup – have been cast aside and can now be found languishing among the lonely hearts ads, rather than on the back pages where they once rightly belonged.

This negativity is widely publicised, but what are the real reasons to neglect what were once seen as major European honours… are they now simply excuses for clubs to kid themselves that they are punching below their weight? Let’s face it, most of the clubs that find themselves playing in the Europa League believe they belong to better, especially since UEFA sold out Europe’s ‘premier’ competition by allowing all and sundry to qualify. Because of this, there is now a plethora of clubs that see themselves as Champions League stalwarts and nothing less will suffice.

There’s also the issue of resources, as teams who have excelled themselves the previous season find themselves languishing in mid-table as they play twice a week, every week, from mid-summer until Christmas (in some cases). Then there’s probably the biggest reason for mockery as, rather like George Clooney and his mates turning up for last orders just as you’re about to go in for the kill with your coat on as the lights go up, you have the ridiculous situation of the Champions League drop-outs being thrown into the mix just when all the hard work seems to have been done.

Some of the negativity is just downright wrong, however, and rather arrogant at times… especially from clubs that have prided themselves when it comes to their European pedigree down the years, regardless of what tournament it was and what it was called. Yes, the money isn’t the same in the Europa League, but is that all we’re interested in now? Is that what was going through the minds of those on the Kop that night when David Fairclough went through to score against St. Etienne: “If he slots this, we’ll make a net profit this season…” And, as for TV viewing figures, take a look at our fellow European neighbours, the competition is regarded in much higher esteem there than it is here, so it can’t all be bad. If pulling at the heart strings of once romantic football fans everywhere won’t do the trick, maybe something more radical is needed to get the Europa League back on the dance floor and strutting its stuff to ‘I Will Survive’ once again.

By giving a place in the Champions League to the winner of this season’s tournament, UEFA have obviously now acknowledged the fact that things need to change (or totally stripped it of any lingering dignity it once had depending on the way you look at it), but there is still more to be done if this ageing singleton is to turn heads once again. So, here are a few suggestions to revamp the Europa League based purely on fan interest and excitement from a supporter’s point of view – not reasons of financial reward or advertising revenue that we are constantly told (and many of us now believe) are so important.

Return to a knock-out format
We always hear the Champions League ‘only gets going’ in the knock-out stages. Well, if that’s the case, let’s do away with this ridiculous foreplay and cut straight to the chase. We know that group stages and even second group stages are only created to generate revenue – but if nobody is watching, then who cares anyway? When the FA Cup starts in January it’s never said that it only really gets exciting when the semi-finals come around, so how about generating some excitement from the start rather than the football equivalent of waiting for the slowies to come on at the end of the night before making a move?

Reduce the number of teams
So, if we’ve done away with the group stages, we now have a bit of room to play with, and limiting the number of participants to say 64, or even 32, would mean games would not be played with such brain-numbing regularity… and would also ensure only the best of the ‘also-rans’ were included. Teams being thrown into the mix while still on their summer break through dubious means like the topping the Fair Play League only leads to apathy among sides that simply don’t deserve to compete (just ask West Ham), not to mention fatigue by the time the tournament proper starts. It really is a case of less is more: less games-equals less-Thursday nights-equals less Sunday afternoons-equals less excuses.

Regionalise the draw
Such has been the expansion of this tournament and European competition in general over the years, that the Europa League now resembles the Eurovision Song Contest and is equally as drawn out. For the benefit of the players, clubs officials and, yes, the fans too, why not think about regionalising the early stages of the draw? Teams from northern Europe (France, England, Germany, Belgium, etc.) could all potentially face each other, as could teams from southern, central and eastern European nations. It works in World Cup qualifying (sort of) and it even works for The Football League Trophy… and before anyone gets too snobby about this suggestion, and how it ruins the romance of the game, anyone who witnessed the farcically gerrymandered Champions League draw this season will have seen that the fixtures may as well be drawn up in the back room of a bar in Zurich, such is the lack of opportunity for them to be random.

Do away with the drop outs
The Europa League is a lesser competition compared to the Champions League. We all know that it’s the friend.. the one that can be more of a laugh, easier and probably where you’ll have a greater chance of success as others go looking for something a little more attractive. So, why do we constantly keep inviting those that are not quite up to it to keep gatecrashing the party? It’s only done as a second chance for them to earn a few more quid on the side and basically feel a bit better about themselves, when they are feeling at their most vulnerable, while all the time feeling dirty, ashamed and slightly used. By keeping Champions League failures out in the cold, those in the Europa League can at least feel confident in their surroundings, knowing that nobody there is (quite literally) out of their league.

Make it one leg only
We see it time and time again – teams setting out in the first leg of a European tie purely with the intention of not getting beaten, not conceding and maybe even nicking the odd goal on the break. So, why not make Europa League games something of a one night stand rather than a turgid long-distance affair? There would be an advantage to the home team, of course, but that’s not new in football. Such is the regularity of European and international games now, players have learned how to adjust when playing away and without the ability for sides to hide behind the comfort blanket of an away goal, we might actually see some more attacking encounters as a result – and, of course, extra time and penalties if not.

Pic courtesy of UEFA