The draw for the Champions League round of 16 will take place in UEFA’s Nyon headquarters on Friday. It is a tournament from which Manchester United will be conspicuously absent. But lurking in the vast auditorium, suffering Gianni Infantino’s wooden delivery along with millions of TV viewers, will be United’s ceo David Gill. The Reds’ chief will take the “punishment,” as Sir Alex Ferguson called it, of watching the party to which his club is no longer invited. And then comes the sideshow: the draw for the much maligned Europa League.
A bloated successor the UEFA Cup, the Europa League consists – post-Christmas – of 32 teams, eight dropping out from the Champions League, and another 24 having qualified via the Europa League group stages. It has become a tournament that few of Europe’s largest clubs relish competing in; a second tier competition from which all the glamour, and much of the money, is missing.
Reorganised in 2004 and then again in 2009, the Europa League now consists of three qualifying rounds, a group stage and four two-legged knock-out rounds, before a one-off showpiece final. What the competition cannot generate in media income, it seemingly makes up for in longevity. Indeed, Fulham, knocked out of this year’s competition at the group stage, played 14 matches, including Thursday night’s fateful draw with Danish side Odense at Craven Cottage. To win the tournament United must play a further nine matches, with the final taking place at the National Stadium in Bucharest.
While the competition’s credibility was eroded as the Champions League expanded to include non-Champions in the 1990s, UEFA’s decision to offer a parachute to clubs failing in the senior tournament further reduced the Europa League’s perceived relevance. Moreover, the prize money on offer is significantly less than that in UEFA’s big competition. It adds up to a tournament for which there are few dedicated supporters outside UEFA.
Aside from Friday’s draw, the real intrigue for United supporters is how seriously Sir Alex will take the competition. After all, amid the disappointment of losing to Basel a fortnight ago, the temptation must surely be for United’s manager to rotate his resources in Europe. The Premier League is now Ferguson’s principal focus, although some might argue, with considerable justification, that rotation is the reason United is in this situation to begin with.
In truth, Ferguson is highly unlikely to field his strongest side until the tournament reaches its semi-final stage. Yet, the Scot, stung by Michael Platini’s defence of his baby, back-tracked on seemingly critical observations about UEFA’s second-tier competition. The Scot last week claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that “the Europa League is a good competition and a strong competition.”
“You only need to look at the teams left in it,” added the 69-year-old. “It’s a competition we want to win. We’re in it and we’ll try to win it.”
Time will tell how truthful that statement is. After all, Tottenham Hotspur have hardly taken the competition seriously this year. One wonders why United might buck that trend.
However, should the Reds survive three rounds with a side likely to contain a number of fringe players United supporters may well feel a tingle of excitement. After all, this is a competition that the club has never won. Worse still, Liverpool is a three times winner of a tournament that used to garner far more respect.
And once United is paired with that unknown Eastern European minnow in the round of 32, Gill will kick into action, raising the usual post-draw platitudes of “excitement” and “challenges”. Fans, of course, may think differently, especially when Basel is drawn in the Champions League. Then it might kick home just what United will be missing in the second half of the season.
Who could United draw?
Dropping out of the Champions League this season with United are Manchester City, Ajax, Valencia, Olympiacos, Porto, Trabzonspor and Czech side Viktoria Plzen. Perhaps only the final pair will relish the additional games and minimal income.
Meanwhile, joining the eight Champions League failures will be those already qualified from the group stage, including some familiar names: PAOK, Standard Liège, Hannover 96, PSV Eindhoven, Legia Warsaw, Sporting Lisbon, Stoke City, Athletic Bilbao, Metalist Kharkiv, Braga, Atlético Madrid, Schalke 04, Twente, Anderlecht, Lokomotiv Moscow, Lazio, Beşiktaş, Steaua Buscharest, Salzburg and Wisła Kraków.
With a final round of matches on Thursday night, four further teams could still qualify: Club Brugge or Birmingham City, Tottenham Hotspur or Rubin Kazan, AZ Alkmaar or Austria Vienna, Udinese or Celtic.
And the draw could mean a tough fixture for United or, worse still, a lengthy journey to Eastern Europe. Ferguson will certainly not relish a tie with Lazio, Atlético Madrid or Lokomotiv Moscow, for example.
However, United cannot face seeded teams, group winners or sides from the same national association in this round, ruling out City, Olympiacos, or Valencia, who are seeded former Champions League teams. Standard Liege, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Beşiktaş, Athletic Bilbao, Metalist Kharkiv, Schalke, Twente or Anderlecht are each group winners. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s side will not play Stoke or Spurs, in the unlikely event that the Londoners qualify.