Many sports bettors shy away from soccer and tournaments like the UEFA Europa League because they don’t understand some of the intricacies. Let’s examine the Champions League tournament’s little sister.
As discussed in our ‘What is the UEFA Champions League All About?’ soccer primer, some sports gamblers don’t bet soccer because they either find the sport too boring with not enough scoring; don’t understand or don’t like the idea of betting on a three-way line and having a potentially unsatisfying Draw; or, simply don’t understand the qualification and makeup of the different tournaments which are all held during the playing of the specific clubs national league seasons.
In the major professional sports leagues in the United States like the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, once play in each league begins, players and teams almost always play in that league from the date it starts until the date it ends. In Europe and soccer leagues in other countries, when a league begins—say for example the English Premier League—teams (clubs) in that league can participate in a number of other tournaments for which they’ve qualified.
For example, the EPL’s sixth-place team last year, Tottenham Hotspur, also participated in the Capital One (Football League) Cup; the FA Cup; and are still playing in the EPL’s regular season as well as here in the UEFA Europa League tournament in the Knockout Phase (Round of 32) where Spurs and Harry Kane will welcome Serie A’s Fiorentina to White Hart Lane in North London in Leg 1 (Fox Soccer Plus (USA)/BT Sport 2 (UK); 3:05 p.m. ET/12:05 p.m. PT) on Feb. 19 when this next stage gets underway. So, for an American or anyone else primarily familiar with a sport that solely plays games in its own league once its season has begun, watching, betting and understanding soccer can at times be pretty confusing if you don’t understand in what event the teams are actually playing.
The Europa League used to be called the UEFA Cup but it has been called the Europa League since the 2009/2010 season after undergoing a change in format, but the two have always been considered the same competition with the latest move simply a rebranding of the tournament. Starting with the 2015/2016 season forward, the lucky winner of this tournament will qualify to enter at least the Playoff Round of the prestigious UEFA Champions League tourney—the big brother of this Europa League.
Who Gets To Play in the Europa League and How Do They Qualify?
Unlike qualification for the Champions League, qualification for the Europa League is a little bit different and a little more complex for clubs in the 54 different countries on the continent of Europe that have league systems which can send representatives to both the annual UEFA Champions League and Europa League tournaments. (UEFA stands for the Union of European Football Associations and UEFA is one of six continental confederations—Africa, Asia, Europe, North and Central America and the Caribbean, Oceania and South America—under soccer’s world governing body, FIFA.)
For the most part, teams that make the Europa League get there by finishing in “various runners-up places in the top-flight leagues of Europe and the winners of the main cup competitions.” In the English Premier League, fifth-place Everton and aforementioned sixth-place Tottenham qualified for this tourney and both are still alive in the round of 32. Some nations have secondary cup competitions but only England (Capital One Cup) and France (French League Cup) have the winner of their national competitions automatically qualify for the Europa League.
The tournament also uses some pretty confusing Coefficients for qualification, but each Association (European league) usually has a standard of three berths for the Europa League, except: FIFA-ranked nations 7 to 9, which have four berths; nations ranked #52 and #53 (Andorra and San Marino in 2013/2014); the nation ranked #54 (Gibraltar in 2014/2015); and, Liechtenstein, which only sends the principality’s Cup winners. Confused? The best way to digest it is to just know that most clubs qualifying this way have little chance of ever taking the UEFA Cup (the Europa League trophy) home with them. Very little.
One simple way to think about it is that the best teams from European leagues and the winners usually make the Champions League while the teams that usually finish in spots three through seven usually have a shot to qualify for Europa League. But not all the time. There are different realities for different leagues and teams can win national Cup tournies and earn automatic berths, sometimes messing up the pecking order. In terms of understanding all of this to actually bet on it, it doesn’t matter. The best approach is probably to rank the different European leagues in your own manner and then bet the stronger ones like Spain or Germany or Italy when they’re playing countries with less popular and strong leagues, although Away games in both UEFA tourneys (Champions League, Europa League) can be awfully challenging when making your soccer picks. A total of 48 clubs participated in the Group Stage of the Europa League with the top two teams in each group (24 total) advancing to the Knockout Phase.
The Knockout Phase (Round of 32)
The specific Qualification process leading up to Knockout Stage—the phase the Europa League which begins on Thursday, Feb. 19 when play resumes next week—can be hard to understand, but the 32 teams now left playing are the aforementioned 12 winners and the 12 runners-up from the Group Stage (just like the Champions League) along with 8 Third-Place teams from the Champions League Group Stage—Olympiacos, Liverpool, Zenit St. Petersburg, Anderlecht, AS Roma, Ajax, Sporting Lisbon and Athletic Bilbao (Athletic Club). So there’s a healthy mix of talented teams and a very nice idea to have a place to go to to continue fighting for silverware for talented Champions League Group Stage third-place teams.
The 32 teams and their opponents for the coming Europa League Knockout Stage: BSC Young Boys-Everton; Torino-Athletic Bilbao; Sevilla-Borussia Mönchengladbach; VfL Wolfsburg-Sporting Lisbon; Ajax-Legia Warsaw; Aalborg BK-Club Brugge; Anderlecht-Dynamo Moscow; Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk-Olympiacos; Trabzonspor-Napoli; Guingamp-Dynamo Kyiv; Villarreal-Red Bull Salzburg; AS Roma-Feyenoord; PSV Eindhoven-Zenit. St. Petersburg; Liverpool-Besiktas JK; Tottenham Hotspur-Fiorentina; and, Celtic-Internazionale (Inter Milan). Leg 1s in this round will be played on Thursday, Feb. 19 with the return Leg 2s being scheduled for the following Thursday, Feb. 26.
The UEFA Europa League (or UEFA Cup) has been won by a total of 27 different clubs with Sevilla—who beat Portugal’s Benfica in last year’s UEFA Europa League final (0-0, 4-2 in PK Shootout) at Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy—the defending champs and the Old Lady herself, Juventus, Inter Milan and Liverpool all having won the tournament three times. Three of the last five winners in this tournament have come from Spain’s powerful La Liga, with aforementioned Sevilla having won it once and upstart Atlético Madrid having won it twice (2009/10, 2011/12) in that five-year span. No club has won consecutive Europa League championships since the tournament changed its working structure in 2009.
This year’s UEFA Europa League final will be held on Wednesday, May 27 at National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland (ITV (UK), 20:45 CET/2:45 p.m. ET/11:45 a.m. PT). And, once again, the winner of the Europa League now gains automatic berth into next season’s lucrative and prestigious UEFA Champions League tournament. Pretty cool.