10 reasons why the Europa League is actually brilliant

Europe's second-favourite competition returns for the last 32 on Thursday, but you should be swapping those sighs for excitement says David Morris...

LAST 10 WINNERS

  • 2014 Sevilla
  • 2013 Chelsea
  • 2012 Atletico Madrid
  • 2011 Porto
  • 2010 Atletico Madrid
  • 2009 Shakhtar Donetsk
  • 2008 Zenit St Petersburg
  • 2007 Sevilla
  • 2006 Sevilla
  • 2005 CSKA Moscow

“Thursday nights, Channel 5,” so the famous ditty goes, as fans aim to embarrass supporters of another team who face the dreaded fate of participating in the Europa League.

But the chant shouldn't really be sung anymore, for two very good reasons. The first is a matter of fact – Channel 5 no longer hold the rights to Europa League action. The second is that, gradually and deservedly, the Europa League is beginning to gain more prestige as a tournament. Yes, it's not as grand as its older UEFA sibling, the Champions League, but there are plenty of reasons why football fans should be excited...

1) A competitive competition

While the Champions League may boast being the more prestigious European tournament laid on by UEFA, its understudy can arguably claim to be a lot more competitive.

In Europe’s elite tournament, we find ourselves in the usual position of having three or four sides capable of securing the title; it will be surprising if none of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona or Chelsea win this year’s Champions League. The same can't be said of the Europa League, a competition which on a yearly basis could be won by any number of teams.

With the knockout rounds beginning this week, bookmakers are unable to make their minds up, with 10 of the 32 teams considered as having a good chance of success. Much will depend on how the draws work out in each round, but for the time being, with the likes of Roma, Liverpool, Napoli, Wolfsburg and Inter Milan (to name but a few sides) contesting the trophy, it really is up for grabs in 2014/15.

2) High-quality fixtures

Admittedly there is little that inspires the neutral in the early, deadwood-chopping rounds of either competition. But as we reach the knockouts, there are plenty of matches to get tongues wagging.

In Europe’s second competition, the one-sided affairs of its big brother (see Schalke-Real Madrid and Monaco-Arsenal) are few and far between, with the draw throwing up a number of intriguing match-ups.

Wolfsburg's battle with Sporting, and Borussia Monchengladbach's clash against champions Sevilla, are exciting prospects. Romantics will have been enamoured by Celtic vs Inter Milan in a throwback to 1967.

Chuck in ties between historical giants like Roma and Feyenoord, and those involving both Liverpool (vs Besiktas) and Tottenham (vs Fiorentina), and you've got yourself some entertainment. 

Sporting will be running with the Wolves on Thursday

3) All roads lead to Europe’s elite

These games are even more important when considering that, for the first time since the tournament’s inception, the winner qualifies for next year’s Champions League.

This is a huge incentive for most of the sides in the competition who may struggle to make the tournament through their own domestic competition.

For example, it's inconceivable that Everton will finish in the top four, while if Spurs or Liverpool do so, it will likely be at the expense of the other. The reward of Champions League football is huge.

4) An English side might win it

We're often told that we should be offering our support to fellow English sides in European competitions. Generally, fans are reluctant to give any sort of backing to teams they would normally detest, but with a couple of exceptions (Arsenal and Manchester United fans, we're looking at you), there's something for every English ‘neutral’ to cheer in this year’s Europa League.

Tottenham and Everton's success in the group stages, combined with Liverpool joining them from the Champions League, means there is a genuine chance that at least one Premier League outfit could go deep into the competition. Liverpool and Everton should expect to progress with minimal fuss against Besiktas and Young Boys, while Spurs have enough about them to see off a more challenging tie against Fiorentina. If they still aren't floating your boat, try Celtic. Merseyside derby in the next round, anyone? 

"Pleased to be here chaps, honest"

5) It’s a hipster’s paradise

At a time when following other European leagues is a cool thing to do, the Europa League, and the remaining 32 sides on offer, really is a paradise for hipsters. Top of the bill are representatives from Germany in the form of Borussia Monchengladbach, and resident Bayern Munich hunters Wolfsburg.

For those looking to lend their support to a fallen giant, Inter Milan are currently undergoing something of a regeneration project, while Dutch sides Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord are also attractive targets for neutral support. Athletic Bilbao, despite this season's troubles, reached the final of the competition as recently as 2012 with a squad of young Basque talent. Simply, the Europa League truly has something for everyone.