After years of being in the shadows of the lucrative Champions League, the Europa League is coming into its own. This season could be its breakthrough with Europe's super clubs, according to DW's Stefan Bienkowski.
Borussia Dortmund and Schalke were in good company when they travelled to Nyon on Monday for the UEFA Champions League and Europa League draw. There, they found out just who they would face in the next round of the continent competition. But unlike any season before it the Europa League hopefuls were no longer resigned to a back table surrounded by continental minnows.
The Europa League has finally some quality to showcase this season and it may just outshine its bigger, brighter alternative come May. The most obvious reason for this is the sheer amount of talent that has dropped down to Europea's second-tier tournament from the Champions League.
Manchester United and Porto are former continental champions, while Valencia, Sevilla and Shakhtar Donetsk are all clubs who have regularly frequented the latter stages of the Champions League. Yet these aren't the only star sides on show: Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur stand alongside powerhouses Dortmund, Schalke, Lazio, Villarreal, Marseille and Napoli. This may not be the Champions League per se, but it sure does look like it.
Fresh and open competition
What also plays in the Europa League's favor is the repetitiveness of the Champions League at this stage. Of the eight ties that were drawn for the Last 16 on Monday, four were lineups that we had already seen in the last three years, with PSG and Chelsea drawing each other for the third season in a row. These may be the best teams in the world but fans are getting bored of the same old showdowns every year.
Alternatively, Dortmund against Porto, Marseille versus Athletic Bilbao, Leverkusen's trip to Sporting Lisbon and Schalke's clash with Shakhtar Donetsk all look like legitimately fascinating ties which will undoubtedly attract fans of the established clubs as well as neutrals from across the sports global appeal.
These fixtures may not have the Champions League seal of approval but they certainly look far more interesting than Jose Mourinho's team camping on a Parisian pitch for what feels like the hundredth time. Where the Europa League's reputation has fallen on its side in the past is when we consider just how seriously these clubs take it. Yet that may be about to change.
UEFA's decision to award the winners of the Europa League a spot in the following season's Champions League was initially considered a cheap gimmick to thwart a failing system, yet it seems as though some of Europe's biggest clubs may finally be appreciating the significant opportunity to leapfrog the domestic qualification process.
Schalke and Leverkusen will both look to the potential prize as an alternative route should they continue to drift outside the Bundesliga's top four, while the likes of Villarreal and Lazio may find themselves in a similar scenario. However, where we might see the biggest shift in attitude towards in the Europa League is among its English contingent.
Door into the big party
Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side look like a team reborn but despite the wave of optimism that seems to have empowered the former Dortmund coach's arrival, a top four finish is probably beyond his team this season. Similarly, Tottenham, who sit fifth after losing just two of their opening 15 games, look no closer to qualification behind an established leading pack.
If either of these sides want Champions League football anytime soon they'll probably have to win the Europa League.
Even the biggest club in the competition, Manchester United, may be forced in to taking it seriously. Louis Van Gaal is in a delicate situation at Old Trafford at the moment, meaning any potential tie against Liverpool, Tottenham or indeed one of the eye-catching European giants in the latter stages would force the manager to consider such a tie as a “must win”.
Forget silverware; a heavy defeat at the hands of Tottenham, Liverpool or even Dortmund could prove hazardous to his role at the club following a glum league run and horrendous Champions League campaign. With Italy losing its fourth Champions League berth this year, the opportunity is vast for Lazio, Fiorentina and Napoli.
The Champions League may still remain Europe's premier club competition and demand the spotlight, but there are a whole host of European heavyweights that are ready to make a real competition of the Europa League this season.