UEFA Europa League Primer

The Champions League is for the best of the best, the top teams from the top leagues all across Europe. The Europa League pulls from a lot of the same population, though it tends to be reserved for teams that are not competing in the Champions League. There are also more opportunities for lower ranked leagues based on the UEFA coefficient, and a better chance for these lower ranked clubs to have representation in the later stages of the tournament.
All that being said, let’s take a closer look at how a team can get into the Europa League.
For the 2018-19 Europa League, there will be a grand total of 213 teams (as of now) participating in the tournament. Depending on where the association league is ranked determines how many spots are awarded to that league, and that in turn determines how the league determines who is selected. Teams are selected based on their performance the previous season, which is why it is sometimes possible to see a Premier League team competing in the Europa League while also falling to the relegation zone, like Wigan Athletic during the 2012-13 season.
The associations ranked between 1-51 (except Liechtenstein) all get at least three spots in the tournament. Associations 52-54 (presently Gibraltar, Andorra, and San Marino) receive (at least) two spots, and Kosovo and the aforementioned Liechtenstein each get at least one. I say “at least” as a qualifier for those numbers because associations can have more teams added to the field as they are eliminated from the Champions League tournament during the same year. For example, there have been 19 teams that have been eliminated from the Champions League tournament thus far, and they have all been placed in the Europa League tournament somewhere.
With me so far?
The initial entries into the Europa League tend to come from a few different places. The Premier League, for example, typically sends the FA Cup winner*, the English League Cup* winner, and the fifth-placed EPL team. However, the fifth place team last year – Chelsea – had already secured their spot by winning the FA Cup, so their automatic bid moved down the table to Arsenal, who gets to enter the Europa League during the group stage. Furthermore, since Manchester City won the English League Cup and is in the Champions League – and can’t compete in both tournaments – and because the 6th place team – Arsenal – is already in Europa, the spot for the English League Cup falls to seventh place finisher Burnley, who enters the tournament during the second qualifying round.
*I’ll talk about these in a future post as well.
(This would all be so much easier to understand if the same team that is dominating the EPL didn’t also win one of the country cups but  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
Qualification is easier to understand at the lower ranks of the UEFA coefficient. Associations that get two entries – like Andorra for example – sends the second and third place teams from their top league. Higher-ranked associations that get three entries will send their domestic cup winner and the second and third place teams from the league. If there is any overlap between cup winner and league placement, they simply move down the league table, similar to the EPL this year, until they have three unique teams.
Let’s take a look at a mid-tier 3-team association, like… Serbia. They are currently right in the middle according to the UEFA coefficient (28 of 55) and therefore get to place three teams into the Europa draw: their domestic cup winner (FK Partizan), the third-place team (FK Radnički Niš) (because Partizan finished second in the league) and the fourth-place team (Spartak Subotica). This process is repeated in all the associations across UEFA to determine the initial teams in the Europa League tournament.
As previously mentioned, Champion League losers also show up in the Europa League, and enter the tournament based on when they lose. Remember FC Drita, the little Kosovar club that could? They lost in a subsequent round of the Champions League, so they get placed into the “champions path” of the Second Qualifying Round for Europa since they managed to win their league. Red Star Belgrade, the champion of the Serbian SuperLiga, has gone a round further in the Champions League and will join the Europa League tournament when they lose, unless they some how make it all the way to the Group Stage and finish in fourth place in a group.
The first leg of the second qualifying round of the Europa League will be played on July 26th, so we’ll see if Drita can continue on their path or not. The Group Stage will begin in September and play games every three weeks until December, with the Knockout Stage played through the beginning of 2019. The Europa League Final will be played on May 29, 2019 at Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the winning team will split nearly $10 million in prize money – a paltry (but not insignificant) sum compared to the Champions League – as well as a pool of money depending on the value of their television market.
The Europa League doesn’t have a lot of repeat champions, especially since the winner of the previous tournament automatically gets a spot in the Champions League. Therefore, Atlético Madrid will only be able to defend their Europa League title if they finish third in their group once that tournament reaches that point. Sevilla was the last repeat champion of the Europa League, win they won three years in a row from 2014-2016.*
*The tournament was changed for the 2014-15 edition, awarding an automatic place in the Champions League for a winner, with a placement determined by the order of finish within their domestic league.
We’re months away from knowing whether or not  Atlético Madrid will be in the position to defend its Europa League title, but I’m sure the team would prefer to go as far as possible in the Champions League instead. Like the Champions League, Spain has dominated the Europa League as well, with 11 champions and 5 runners-up, which is illustrated in Spain’s UEFA coefficient being nearly 25 points ahead of second-place Germany. Hopefully, a non-Spanish team can break through in either the Europa or Champions League to mix this up a little, but it will be years until Spain is knocked of its lofty perch.
It will be interesting to see how the Europa League ends up shaking out, and if there will be an “upstart” team among the finalists. The 2017-18 quarter-finals featured teams from Spain (1st per UEFA coefficient), Germany (2nd), England (3rd), Italy (4th), Portugal (5th), France (6th), Russia (7th), and Austria (16th), making Red Bull Salzburg the only team from outside the top 8 Associations. Why is this important? Because Red Bull Salzburg’s performance in the Europa League moved Austria up a spot in the UEFA coefficient rankings for the 2018-19 season, giving Austria two teams in the Champions League, which leads to more money and more prestige going forward.
Do you really need to follow the Europa League? Probably not, unless your preferred team is involved and you are confused why they are playing two matches during the week. But it is interesting to watch teams that aren’t the “usual suspects” competing for a title, even if it only pays a a tenth of the prize of its much more prestigious cousin.
Until next time…
 

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