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Let’s talk about the Europa League

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This is the conversation we didn’t really want to have.

Arsenal v Everton - Premier League
This is not a Europa League opponent
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Arsenal are in a place that probably only a handful of us have been around long enough to know they could occupy - on the outside of the next Champions League looking in. For the first time in 20 years, Arsenal will not be in the continent’s highest-profile competition. They will have to make do with a spot in the second highest, the Europa League; late inquiries to UEFA about whether Arsenal could maybe please trade the two Europa League places it has earned for one Champions League place came to nought, so Europa it is.

WHAT IS THE EUROPA LEAGUE?

Well, it runs like the Champions League, but it’s not quite as Bayern Munich-y. The Europa League is a tournament whose group stage features 12 groups of four teams each, and whose knockout stage is thus larger - the knockout stage is 24 teams, as opposed to the Champions League’s 16.

The UEFA Cup was merged with the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, and then in 2004-05, the competition added a group stage. In 2009, the UEFA Cup absorbed the Intertoto Cup, which was a “pay to play” cup held in the summer, which any European team not involved in the UEFA Cup could enter for a fee. The winner of the Intertoto Cup was given a place in the UEFA Cup. With that merge, the UEFA Cup expanded its group stage to the current 48 teams. At the same time, it rebranded itself to its current Europa League name.

WHO QUALIFIES FOR THE EUROPA LEAGUE?

Arsenal do! But also, lots of other teams do, in a very confusing mishmash. The straight-up answer is that teams send their domestic Cup winner and either one or two teams that finish immediately below the Champions League qualifying places for that country (the “one or two” determination is based on FIFA UEFA coefficient), but in reality there are more permutations than that; a lot depends on finishing position and Cup participation.

For instance, in England, the Europa League places go to the domestic Cup winner and the fifth-placed team in the Premier League; last year, Manchester United was both of those things, so the second Europa League spot went to sixth-placed Southampton.

This season, Arsenal could also be both, which normally would mean that the other Europa spot would go to sixth-placed Manchester United; they, of course, are in this year’s Europa League final, which is this Wednesday. Should United win, they will be granted a place in next year’s Champions League, which means the other Europa spot will go to seventh-place finishers Everton.

SHOULD I CARE ABOUT THE EUROPA LEAGUE?

Of course you should. Arsenal are in it. For all the fan bleating about it being a lesser competition, it’s still a trophy that’s there to be won - and I’ve never seen a player turn down a Europa League winner’s medal because it wasn’t the Champions League, or turn down the chance to play in the Europa League because it’s not the Champions League. Players want to win things, and fans should too - the Europa League is winnable, so why not want to win it?

The other thing about the Europa League is that you’ll get to see teams you normally wouldn’t - for all the glitz and glamour of the Champions League, at least for me it gets stale really fast, because - and this isn’t even related to Bayern Munich! - it gets really boring seeing the exact same teams every single season with one or two exceptions. So this coming season will be a bit of a breath of fresh air.

This year, the Europa League featured teams from Turkey, Israel, Russia, Romania, Cyprus, and a bunch of “other” teams from all the countries you see in the Champions League; if nothing else, a change of scenery like that is fun for me from a viewing perspective. It could be a travel nightmare, but since I’m neither playing nor working for the team, that’s not really my worry.

On a philosophical level, I get why you might not care as much - the Europa League is, by design, not where the best of the best play. But guess what, Arsenal fans? Our favorite team isn’t the best of the best any more. They’re in the Europa League now. So, yes, I think you should care about it.

WHAT WILL THE EUROPA LEAGUE MEAN FOR ARSENAL’S PREMIER LEAGUE AMBITIONS?

This is the big unknown. The Europa League, of course, plays its group stage games on Thursday nights, which means lots of quick turnarounds and Sunday games for Arsenal next season. There’s really no way of quantifying the effect that will have on a league campaign - Manchester United finished fifth last season and sixth this season, but there’s really no way of knowing whether Europa League games cost them that one league position, and in any case, that’s only one data point.

All I know is that Arsene Wenger, famously not a fan of squad rotation, will need to become one if he’s still around and if he wants Arsenal to be strong in both competitions.

DOES IT SUCK NOT TO BE IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE?

Sure it does. But one thing I’ve learned in my life is this: look forward, never back. There’s no sense in relitigating this past season, because it is over and there’s nothing to be done about it now (not that you or I could do anything about it anyway). The Champions League will still be there next year when Arsenal qualify for it again. So for this coming season, as they say, we should all learn to embrace the suck.