THE Europa League is less a poor relation of the Champions League, more an embarrassing relative locked under the stairs.
FOR Newcastle United, the Europa League was supposed to be the prize for a season of over-achievement. It is turning out to be more of a punishment.
Too often Premier League clubs spend months striving to qualify, then once they are in it, desperately trying to get out of it.
Newcastle have not been guilty of that, and should book their place in the knockout stages with a game to spare on Thursday.
But it would be stretching it to suggest they have given the grand old competition (including its Uefa Cup days) the respect it deserves, or at least used to.
They have never fielded a full-strength side in it – at certain times it has been anything but – and more bizarrely are yet to wear their famous black-and-white shirt in any of the six games.
While the Lime Greens’ European fortunes have not suffered too much from Alan Pardew’s (right) selections – winning at home, drawing away – their domestic form is taking a hit from the extra workload.
This time last year they were third in the table. Yesterday morning they were 12th.
There is a disjointed look about the Magpies this season. Whereas 12 months ago they were reaping the benefits of a settled side, the constant chopping and changing Europe has forced upon them – exacerbated by injury and suspension – has denied them the opportunity to build any rhythm.
A first Europa League season ought to be a springboard to better things for upwardly-mobile clubs. The reality is rather different.
History suggests good campaigns in Europe and the Premier League are incompatible.
Fulham got to the 2010 final, but had to settle for mid-table mediocrity at home, whereas Aston Villa went out in the play-offs and qualified again for the next competition.
Last season Birmingham City, Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City reached the group stages. Birmingham missed out on automatic promotion, Tottenham on the Champions League (though admittedly only because Chelsea won it), and having gone furthest of the three, Stoke were 14th in the league. The two Manchester giants were parachuted into the knockout stages and quickly got out of them to concentrate on a titanic title race.
That it is one or the other is not in Uefa’s interest, yet they are most to blame. They have turned a once-cherished competition into a booby prize.
As the Champions League has grown, its little brother has shrunk into the background. Uefa tried a 2009-10 revamp to address that, but only succeeded in making it suffer by comparison.
Allowing European Cup dropouts into the competition – both after the qualifying and group stages – gave the then-Uefa Cup its unfortunate booby prize feel. Not undoing that when it was rebranded as the Europa League three years ago was a big mistake.
But Uefa’s response was to rip up a slightly illogical format to one aping its big brother. Becoming a fatter version of its more glamorous big sister – it is identical bar the addition of an extra knockout round – only highlights what a poor relation it is.
At a time when governing bodies are constantly bleating about their precious players being overworked by international and domestic football, the net result is more matches.
This year’s winners, Atlético Madrid, played 19 games in the competition – half a Premier League season. These are not Champions League clubs with the untold riches allowing them to build a super-squad, these are clubs aspiring to get there. The Europa League does not offer the sort of prize money that can close the gap. For a governing body trying to discourage its clubs from overspending, it is hardly a good incentive.
Valencia qualified for this season’s Champions League despite reaching last season’s semi-finals, while Atlético Madrid were fifth in La Liga – two places higher than the previous year. But England is not the only country which struggles with the balancing act. Full-strength teams are very rare in the first half of the competition, at least from those who ought to have realistic aspirations of going far in it. Why is Uefa doing this to itself?
The Europa League group stage halves the number of teams from 48 to 24. A single round of two-legged knockout would have the same effect.
Instead, teams like Newcastle play six half-strength sides in front of frequently half-full, half-interested stadia, often kicking off at times which are inconvenient to the supporters (don’t worry, though, television will be fine) to reach the halfway stage of a half-arsed version of the Champions League for much less than half the cash.
Accommodating this nonsense means league schedules have to be torn up too. Saturday’s game against Swansea City was St James’ Park’s first Saturday three o’clock kick-off this season.
Newcastle are the lucky ones. In geographical terms, Atromitos, Braga, Bordeaux and Maritimo have been a kindly draw in a competition featuring teams from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Israel and deepest, darkest Dagestan.
With a bit of creativity, it could all be so different. Giving the Europa League a different format to the Champions League would add a fresher feel.
More knockout football – you know, the stuff the fans prefer? – would mean fewer games and more excitement.
If you really wanted group stages in the competition, then regionalising them would mean less air miles and more intense rivalries.
Either way, the biggest of the 193 teams taking part would surely be encouraged to take the competition a bit more seriously, safe in the knowledge they would not be sacrificing glory at home for it.
Wouldn’t that suit everyone?