Although it may always remain in the shadow of the Champions League, arguably football’s elite domestic competition, this season has further dispelled any notion that very few teams take the Europa League seriously.
The inclusion of Champions League qualification for the winner has added even more incentive for teams to field their strongest team in an effort to taste European glory, with numerous big-name clubs already falling by the wayside as just eight teams remain in the race to reach the 2014/2015 Final in Warsaw. Roma, Inter Milan and Villarreal are amongst those to have been knocked out, while there are no English representatives to speak of in the Quarter Finals for the second year in a row.
Bundesliga giants Wolfsburg are considered favourites with Betway, but knock-out football has already served up some surprising results that have made the Europa League dramatic and exciting to watch this season.
No English representatives
Although teams from England have enjoyed success in the competition over the years in the old days of the UEFA Cup and the present day format of the Europa League, Everton’s 6-4 aggregate defeat at the hands of Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev meant there was to be no repeat of Chelsea’s dramatic victory in the 2013 Final in Amsterdam.
It coincided in the same week that English representation in the Champions League ended before the Quarter Final stage for the second time in the last three seasons, leading many to believe that England are behind other countries in terms of quality and how to perform in European competitions. The manner in which English teams have exited the Champions League and Europa League this season may support this argument, but peaks and troughs are all too common in football; many expected German clubs to dominate Europe following the all-German 2013 Champions League Final, but not only did both Madrid clubs contest the 2014 Final, it has been 18 years since a German team won the Europa League.
Furthermore, England are currently ranked third behind Spain (eight winners) and Italy (nine) in the list of winners in the competition’s history with seven, with Tottenham, Liverpool and Ipswich among those who have tasted European glory. Although Middlesbrough and Fulham recently fell at the final hurdle in 2006 and 2010 respectively, there is more than enough quality across the board to suggest that English clubs will come back stronger than ever in the 2015/2016 Europa League.
Eight teams remaining
The 2015 Europa League quarter-finals may represent the strongest line-up in recent years, with no fewer than six countries represented by teams who have high aspirations of going all the way to the final. It illustrates the considerable quality which exists across Europe, with Russia, Belgium and Ukraine demonstrating their growth as football nations with representatives that have as good a chance as anyone else of being triumphant in Warsaw.
However, there are some big clubs still left in the Europa League who have proven their quality throughout each round, with Wolfsburg widely considered to be the favourites to be the 2015 champions and end Germany’s18-year barren spell. The manner in which they dismissed Inter Milan over both legs in their Last 16 tie illustrated just what Dieter Hecking’s young team are capable of, with the likes of Ricardo Rodriguez and Kevin De Bruyne coming to the fore as high-quality prospects. They will face a real test in the Quarter Finals against Napoli, who have a manager who knows what it takes to win the competition; Rafael Benitez led Valencia to Europa League glory in 2004, before guiding Chelsea to the trophy in 2013 as interim manager.
Defending champions Sevilla have proven themselves to be the dominant force in the Europa League since the turn of the 21st century, with victory in 2006, 2007 and 2014 illustrating Spain’s dominance in the competition. Unai Emery’s side can make history by becoming the only team to win four trophies, but they will have to overcome a dangerous Zenit St. Petersburg side who can beat anyone on their day. While Fiorentina and Dynamo Kiev are certainly worth keeping an eye on as potential dark horses, the same could be said for Club Brugge and Dnipro who, despite being considered as rank outsiders, have proved they have the quality to compete against the very best in Europe.