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The Europa League often draws derision from football supporters. Seen very much as the Champions League’s little brother, the idea of playing Europa League matches on Thursday nights is used as a mocking device by rival fans, the competition perceived somehow as the graveyard of European football.
In England, the competition has been labelled a distraction in the past, cited as the reason for its participants’ poor showing in their domestic league — a strain on the resources of the smaller English clubs which take part and an unwelcome irritant for the bigger clubs which cannot quite crack the top four.
However, this season Arsenal and Chelsea have largely put paid to the idea that the Europa League is a hindrance to the sides that would see themselves as above it. The two London clubs have used it wisely — in the group stage as a means to test and give playing time to fringe players while maintaining a high level of performance — and in the latter stages as a competition to be respected, naming strong starting XIs in a bid to reach the final in Baku.
Of course, the prize for winning the Europa League is an automatic berth in next season’s Champions League group stage, and with the battle to join Manchester City and Liverpool in the top four of the Premier League becoming increasingly tense, Arsenal and Chelsea may be relieved that they have an alternative point of access to Europe’s premier competition.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea’s respective passages to the Europa League semi-finals have been relatively straight forward, making them a safe pick thus far in Europa League betting on Betfair. Chelsea have dispatched Malmo, Dynamo Kiev and Slavia Prague en-route to the last four, and their superior quality has brought them through each tie relatively unscathed.
Arsenal breezed past BATE Borisov and Rennes before being faced with a sterner test in Napoli, but Unai Emery’s side demonstrated against the Italians that the Europa League is a high priority, bringing their A-game and comfortably knocking out Napoli 3-0 on aggregate.
The reality is that European silverware is hard to come by, and the Europa League offers a rare chance for continental glory. Chelsea experienced that thrill in 2013, beating Benfica in the final, and while it paled in comparison to their Champions League triumph a year earlier, it was still a magnificent achievement, placing Chelsea in an elite group with Ajax, Juventus, and Bayern Munich of sides to have won the Champions League, Europa League and the Cup Winners’ Cup.
The fact that Champions League qualification can be attained through winning the Europa League only adds to this sense of prestige. Manchester United were beneficiaries of this in the 2016/17 season, beating Ajax in the final to secure their place in next season’s Champions League despite finishing sixth in the Premier League.
It’s clear that Arsenal and Chelsea have learned from Man United’s example. While the lengthy, drawn out nature of winning the Europa League may seem a daunting prospect at the beginning of the season, when broken down into its individual parts it is a very realistic ambition for Europe’s bigger clubs that find themselves outside the Champions League’s elite confines.
The potential remains for Arsenal and Chelsea to meet in the final, in what would be the first all English Europa League/UEFA Cup final since the competition’s inaugural showpiece between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1972. Indeed, were Man United to pip both London sides to fourth place in the Premier League, such a final between Arsenal and Chelsea could be a straight shoot-out for Champions League qualification, and would see thousands of English fans descend upon Baku.
Whatever happens, Arsenal and Chelsea, and indeed Manchester United two years ago, have proven that the Europa League has value that goes far beyond the kind of mockery some fans use to poke fun at its participants. There is a growing sense that in Europe’s secondary competition the stakes have never been higher.