Why the much maligned Europa League matters once more

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has grown to love the Europa League. Picture: Simon Hofmann/Uefa via Getty Images
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has grown to love the Europa League. Picture: Simon Hofmann/Uefa via Getty Images
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Jose Mourinho had just been repeatedly tossed into the air by members of his backroom staff when the jubilant Manchester United manager beckoned his son, Jose junior, onto the field. They danced in each other’s arms before falling to the ground, where they shared a long, warm embrace.

Mourinho never could have thought that winning the Europa League, following United’s 2-0 victory over Ajax, would mean so much to him.

In 2013, Mourinho – newly hired as Chelsea manager for the second time – was dismissive of the competition, saying he didn’t want to win it and that doing so “would be a big disappointment to me”.

Fast forward four years, and the oft-criticised Europa League has saved his first season at United. For Mourinho and many other managers, the value of the Europa League has increased massively following Uefa’s decision to award a Champions League qualifying place to the winner. That took effect starting in the 2015-16 season and it is telling that the four finalists since then have been high calibre: Sevilla and Liverpool in 2016, and United and Ajax in 2017.

The Champions League’s poor relation can be a long slog of a competition – the winner will end up playing at least 15 games – but teams across Europe seem to be taking it seriously once again.

No more so than in England.

Premier League sides used to treat it with contempt by fielding reserve teams for matches. Quite simply, the competition wasn’t worth the effort, with the effects of playing on Thursday night - sometimes in far-flung locations - having an impact on league performances the following Sunday.

For English clubs, it was all about the Premier League and its vast riches on offer.

The mindset is changing, though. Qualifying for the Champions League via a top-four finish in the Premier League has never been tougher, with six teams – Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, United, and Arsenal – genuine heavyweights.

Two will always miss out, so qualifying for the Champions League through the Europa League is increasingly enticing. The fact a team can win a trophy while doing so adds to the lure, as Mourinho pointed.

“We go to the Champions League by winning a trophy, not by finishing second, third or fourth,” Mourinho said, aiming a little dig at Tottenham, City, and Liverpool.