Thursday nights. Travelling to places you doubt are in the Thomas Cook holiday brochure. Facing teams that barely have any vowels in their names.
This is why you’d be wrong to dismiss the Europa League as a second rate competition.
Yes, this is a competition that big clubs can ‘fall into’. Let’s not forget, however, that for winning this competition, you’re able to enter the coveted holy grail – the UEFA Champions League. You just need to look at some of the names in this season’s competition so far. Bear in mind, this is without the teams that will finish third in their Champions League group and subsequently enter the round of 32.
Chelsea, Marseille, AC Milan and Celtic have all won the most sought-after European trophy at least once before.
Arsenal and Bayer Leverkusen, despite neither having ever won the Champions League, have both finished runners-up in the past.
That’s the crème de la crème of European club competition but the Europa League, or UEFA Cup as it was once known, is about creating different sorts of dreams for teams.
Europa League: All about the minnows?
Whether it’s Rangers knocking out Werder Bremen, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina en route to the 2008 final where they lost to Zenit St Petersburg in Manchester, or Celtic knocking out Stuttgart and Liverpool before losing to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in Seville – there’s big names all over the place.
Fulham, who are just back in the Premier League after a four-year absence, knocked out Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, Wolfsburg and Hamburg to reach the 2010 final. They were eventually beaten by Atletico Madrid, last season’s winners.
Atleti, Juve and Shakhtar are all pretty much now Champions League regulars, citing the size of clubs that compete in this competition from time to time.
Do British clubs care?
British clubs have a somewhat decent history in this competition should they choose to take it seriously. English teams have won on eight occasions, third on the list behind Italian teams (9) and Spanish teams (11). Whilst a Scottish team has never won it, they’ve finished runners-up three times.
Manchester United even used it as their direct route back to the Champions League when they beat a youthful Ajax side, with an average age of 21, in the final the season before last.
Dundee United, Middlesbrough and Wolves have also all finished runners-up in the past. Bizarrely, Ipswich Town won the UEFA Cup in 1981, defeating AZ Alkmaar over a two legged final 5-4 on aggregate.
It may not have all the glitz and glamour. There may not be a notable song, everyone screaming “THE CHAAAAAMPIOOOONS”. There’s not a big ball flag being waved in the centre circle, oh no. However, what it does have is it provides clubs with something different.
Easier on the wallet than its big brother?
Take the tickets for example. Celtic will charge you more to enter Parkhead, for what should be a routine victory, against either Aberdeen or Hibernian in league action than they will if you opted to watch the Hoops take on RB Leipzig or Salzburg at the same venue in a European competition. Whilst the Red Bull clubs are looking to get off the ground in terms of their history, those prices are absolute steals.
Rangers can offer a package where all three games come at a price of £105 in which they play the 32-time Austrian champions Rapid Wien, 22-time Russian champions Spartak Moscow and Villarreal, three-time Europa League and one-time Champions League semi-finalists. An average price of £35 to see Rangers, a domestic powerhouse, take on other massive clubs in their respective nations. Not bad value for money in my opinion.
Say both the Old Firm get through to the round of 32, which isn’t a stretch following their opening results. They could end up facing a club that unluckily misses out and comes third in their Champions League group. Not bad considering the Scottish game is supposedly in crisis.
How did seventh place Burnley get on in qualifying for the Europa League again?