The Europa League is forced to fit around the Champions League, but Uefa's main glamour tournament could cope with competition on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
"People," Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his Manchester United programme notes at the weekend, "are starting to talk about the Europa League as a second class competition."
Wonder who that could be then? Not the United manager himself, by any chance, when referring to his club's restyled European horizons as the penalty they must pay for being turfed out of the Champions League by Basel. Or United's captain, Patrice Evra, perchance, who said it was an embarrassment for the club to find themselves in the Europa League.
United were so downbeat about the whole thing that even Michael Platini felt obliged to speak up for his little-loved tournament, warning English clubs not to get too big for their boots and lose sight of the European perspective. That message seemed to get through to Ferguson, who subtly altered his original stance over the course of the last week. "It is a decent competition and the only way for us to prove ourselves is to go out and win it," he said. "Obviously we are stepping down, but if we go into it feeling we are too good for it and it's not worthy of us then we will come a cropper."
There are, as others have been pointing out in the past few days, some good bits to the Europa League. Birmingham City are still in it, for instance, or at least they are at time of going to press. Spurs get the chance to play Shamrock Rovers, somebody somewhere always appears to be getting the chance to play Metalist Kharkiv, and even if you make it through the group stage, as Manchester City did last season, you can still find yourself plunging out of the competition in temperatures of six below zero in Kiev. The Champions League tends to be a known circuit these days; you may find the odd minnow such as Otelul Galati on the modern map of Europe but there are few uncharted waters where there may be dragons or whales. The Europa League is a bit of a throwback to when Europe was an adventure in every sense, with no guarantee that the outcome or the destination will be worthwhile or pretty.
Yet most of those arguments reflect dissatisfaction with the Champions League more than admiration for the junior model. The trouble with the Europa League has always been that it was conceived to fit around the Champions League without distracting from Uefa's main glamour tournament, so obviously so that it is difficult to see it in any other light.
It is unquestionably a second-class competition, for a start. You could say the old Uefa Cup was the same, except it wasn't. The original Uefa Cup was a respectable competition for all the very good clubs around Europe who didn't happen to win their leagues that year. The standard was frequently as high if not better than the European Cup, and quite often, with a few more teams from the stronger leagues knocking about, the path to the final would be more challenging. Best of all, the old Uefa competition stood on its own two feet. It would be won by a team that had featured in the first round because until the Champions League came along there was no need to parachute in group-stage rejects from the senior competition. And, needless to say, it was not played on Thursdays. Thursday is not a football day, being far too close to Saturday. Thursday football could have been conceived of only by people desperate to protect the sanctity of Champions League match nights at any cost, so as to raise maximum revenue from television companies and sponsors.
Between them, the Champions League rejects and the Thursday nights mark out the Europa League as an inferior tournament. Not so much an afterthought or a consolation, like a plate competition for first-round losers, but something deliberately designed to be clumsy and unattractive. Given the choice, one feels the United manager and players would have elected to go straight out of Europe to try again next season following their defeat in Basel. Being scooped up by the Europa League was not what anyone really wanted, with the possible exception of the club accountants, and, though United are now making the right noises about being in it to win it and taking the competition seriously, one wonders whether this will actually translate to resolve and determination on the pitch. When Arsenal became one of the first teams to drop into the newly rejigged Uefa Cup in 1999-2000, they managed to reach the final, only to lose on penalties to Galatasaray because they could not seem to find the heart to take the game seriously.
At the opposite extreme there are teams such as Stoke, thrilled and honoured to be in Europe at all and taking the Europa League commendably seriously, even though their fans could hardly have been delighted with a group stage schedule that featured away trips to Kiev, Tel Aviv and Istanbul. Since qualifying a couple of weeks ago with a home draw against Dynamo Kyiv, all Tony Pulis has been praying for is a shortish trip to Portugal or Spain so that fans can travel in numbers to join in the European experience. That is what European football should be about, yet even so it is a good thing Stoke have rediscovered their league form. Managers as varied as Martin O'Neill and Gary Megson have decided to bale out of the Europa at around this stage in recent years, fearing with some justification that staying any longer on the Thursday-Sunday treadmill would damage their Premier League interests.
So while it is always possible to talk up individual aspects of the Europa League, in its present form it is hard to love. It is not as good as it could or should be. As long as teams drop out of the Champions League and into the Europa's later stages it can only be regarded as an imperfect format, both by the teams doing the dropping down and the teams – Stoke or Fulham, say – who have battled thus far only to be dumped upon from a height. It is a cynical exercise in making more money and letting the bigger teams down gently, though as that seems to be Uefa's unofficial raison d'être don't expect it to change any time soon.
What could change, and surely should, is the Thursday night routine. The Champions League is big enough to look after itself now, it does not have to demand all rival attractions operate on other nights of the week. One could imagine Manchester City v Manchester United in the Europa would divert attention from a few big Champions League nights, but how often it that going to happen? It is more likely to be Stoke v Schalke, and if Channel 5 wants to buy that and run it against ITV/Sky on a Champions League night on the grounds that it may be less predictable and more entertaining, it should be allowed to, because it may very well be.
Stoke and Schalke are both playing in the Europa League on Wednesday night, which must make a pleasant change. They are doing that only because the Champions League has temporarily concluded, however. When it returns, it will be back to Thursday and Sundays. Yet between now and the end of the season, now the group stages have finished, there are going to be fewer Champions League games. Still the same number of match nights, but fewer games. It would be a start, and a much-needed boost to an ailing tournament, if the Europa League were to share post-Christmas Tuesdays and Wednesdays with the glamour clubs. Teams in the gruelling pre-Christmas group stages could then look forward to that as some sort of reward.
At the moment, the trouble with Europa League football is that it doesn't look sufficiently like a reward for anything. As Mr Platini will realise, if he bothers to read the English papers, "Thursday night, Channel 5" has practically entered the English language as an insult. No competition needs that. Channel Five is bad enough.