The Europa League is back and more than ever is a competition to savour

This season’s round of 32 is arguably the strongest since the Uefa Cup was rebranded in 2009 and should help the second-tier tournament shed its second-rate reputation

It’s hard to know sometimes if Arsène Wenger is an optimist or pessimist. A football romantic who acts as if he genuinely believes the world is out to get him (Mike Dean especially), the Frenchman’s glass appears to be as full as it is empty, and that may well be the case as he ponders Arsenal’s return to Europa League action on Thursday.

No doubt Wenger will be chuffed with who his side face in the round of 32 – Sweden’s Östersund – but less pleasing to him will be the calibre of teams Arsenal could face in subsequent rounds. For this year’s Europa League knockout stages are arguably the most intriguing and downright difficult since the expanded, more lucrative version of the Uefa Cup came into existence nine years ago.

Among the contenders are the current leaders of Serie A, the second-placed team in La Liga, last season’s runners-up in the Bundesliga and enough dark horses to fill the stalls at Haydock Park. If Arsenal are planning on taking the competition seriously from hereon in, they will have to do it a hard way.

The presence of Napoli, Atlético Madrid and RB Leipzig is a boon for neutrals and a boost for the reputation of European football’s second-tier tournament. Because however hard it tries, the Europa League struggles to be viewed not only as second tier but also second rate, particularly by the elite clubs. In an era when being in the Champions League is the be all and end all for the rich and powerful, having to compete in ‘the other one’ is deemed a nuisance, embarrassment or both.

That particularly holds on these shores, where the chant “Thursday night, Channel Five” because a regular means by which one set of supporters mocked another, and while a change in host broadcaster may have ended that taunt, the stigma remains.

It is all a bit of a shame given the regard with which the Uefa Cup was held. Back when two teams at most qualified from a single nation for the European Cup/Champions League, being part of the Uefa Cup was deemed an achievement. For many, it was also the better of the two tournaments given its depth of quality. But then the Champions League got bigger and, in 1999, the tournament below was mashed in with the one below that – the Cup Winners’ Cup – to create something wholly unsatisfying.

Bloated in size the Uefa Cup also became confusing to follow, in particular the single round-robin group stage format introduced in 2004 that spread 40 teams across eight groups and saw those involved play two fixtures at home and two away but no single team home and away. Matters were not helped by the top three sides from each group progressing to the knockout stages and being joined by the eight third-placed teams from the Champions League group stage.

Stade de Lyon - the home of Ligue 1 club Lyon and where this season’s Europa League final will take place on 16 May
Stade de Lyon - the home of Ligue 1 club Lyon and where this season’s Europa League final will take place on 16 May. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The Uefa Cup had become a second-chance saloon for those clubs who had not cut it at Champions League level and the fact that has continued in the era of the Europa League has done little to dispel the sense that a once prestigious competition is now low-grade, despite the name change and introduction of a more straightforward format.

The disparity in financial rewards is also an issue – the winners of this season’s Europa League will receive €6.5m compared to €15.5m for the team that wins the Champions League – as is the Thursday-Sunday factor, which for British clubs in particular is a bugbear as it means continuously playing catch-up to their rivals. Yet for all the negatives, it should be remembered that the Europa League is one of only two major European trophies on offer to teams across the continent and, for the winner, also provides automatic qualification to the Champions League.

Those involved would be wise to take it seriously, then, while for outside observers there has been plenty of captivating football to enjoy for some time now. And this year the level could rise significantly given the teams involved in the knockout rounds, which got underway with CSKA Moscow’s first leg trip to Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday.

“The last 32 of the Europa League is pretty appetising,” says European football expert, Andy Brassell. “Napoli against RB Leipzig is probably the pick of the ties. Borussia Dortmund’s meeting with over-achievers Atalanta and the match of two in-form young sides in Lyon and Villarreal look good too, in a field featuring six former European champions.”

Napoli, Atlético and Leipzig are involved because they failed to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League, so while their presence, along with that of CSKA, Celtic, Sporting Lisbon, Spartak Moscow and Borussia Dortmund, will be deemed a negative by some, it has given the competition an undeniable surge of quality. Suddenly the likes of Dries Mertens, Antoine Griezmann and Naby Keita are involved, alongside the stellar talents that were there in the group stages, such as Nabil Fekir, Aleksandr Kokorin and Leonardo Bonucci .

Elsewhere it is worth keeping an eye on Lazio, who have become a rejuvenated, high-scoring force under Simone Inzaghi, and Marseille – third in Ligue 1 and always a source of fascination. And while the overall mix in this season’s Europa League does not compare to what is on offer in the Champions League, it remains strikingly rich. Come the final at Stade de Lyon on 16 May, the Europa League may even be a competition that makes Wenger smile.