New era, new hope as UEFA Cup bids farewell

ISTANBUL - Shakhtar Donetsk fans celebrated long into the Istanbul night after winning the last UEFA Cup final on Wednesday as Europe's second-tier competition bid farewell before a re-launch as the Europa League for next season. There have been some memorable finals since the UEFA Cup replaced the Fairs Cup in 1971 but Shakhtar's 2-1 victory over Werder Bremen is likely to be viewed around much of the continent as nothing more than a warm appetiser for next week's Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona. The UEFA Cup has lost its allure, unable to sit comfortably alongside the more lucrative and prestigious Champions League. European football's governing body hope that will change next with the Europa League, complete with an expanded group stage format to mirror its big brother tournament. The image and reputation of the UEFA Cup undoubtedly suffered when a group stage, featuring 40 teams playing four games that preceded the knockout rounds, was introduced from 2004. Despite being a showcase for the lesser lights of European football, it proved unpopular with clubs and fans. With three qualifying places up for grabs in each of the eight five-team groups, some clubs could put their feet up after just two games. In some seasons two victories from two games was enough to guarantee progress through to the last 32, meaning top players could be rested for the remaining fixtures -- leaving empty seats in stadiums as fans stayed away. A successful UEFA Cup run was also not necessarily a priority for some managers. In February, Aston Villa left eight first-team regulars out of their squad for the first knockout round, second leg match away to CSKA Moscow. Villa were by no means out of the tie having drawn the first leg 1-1 at Villa Park. Manager Martin O'Neill, despite conceding "Villa broke our necks to get into Europe," said his side's assault on securing a Champions League place in the Premier League took priority. "Chasing a top-four spot to get a Champions League place is everything," he said. Villa were fourth in the Premier League before they lost 2-0 to CSKA to bow out 3-1 on aggregate. SHORT SHRIFT Exiting Europe did not ultimately benefit their challenge for the Champions League and Villa head into their final league game in sixth place, with a Europa League spot already assured. Those teams at the wrong end of their domestic championships also gave the UEFA Cup short shrift this season. Tottenham Hotspur's dismal first-half of their campaign left the twice UEFA Cup winners at the wrong end of the Premier League, prompting manager Harry Redknapp to rest key players for their last 32 second leg at home to Shakhtar. St Etienne coach Alain Perrin caused controversy a round later when he was quoted as saying that he viewed the club's continued involvement in the competition as a hindrance. Perrin, whose side were battling to avoid relegation from Ligue 1, later backtracked on his comments but St Etienne bowed out 3-2 on aggregate to finalists Werder Bremen. UEFA say the Europa League, with a new name, new logo and new centralised marketing, will "raise significantly more revenue for the European game and participating clubs". Victories in recent years for teams from the old Soviet Union - CSKA Moscow in 2005, Zenit St Petersburg last year and Ukraine's Shakhtar on Wednesday - shows the competition can provide a platform for unfashionable clubs to win major honours. UEFA state that changes to the 2009-10 Champions League, which will give group places to more champions and feature an unseeded final qualifying round, could see more big clubs from Europe's major leagues competing in the Europa League. How much priority they give it remains to be seen.