Europa League no longer a consolation prize for European giants

COLOGNE, GERMANY (AFP) – The Europa League may not be able to match the riches and glamour of the Champions League, but the presence of Manchester United and Inter Milan in the semi-finals is further evidence that Europe’s giants are increasingly taking the competition seriously.

United and Sevilla, who face off in tomorrow’s (3am Brunei time) first semi-final, have already benefitted from the introduction of a place in the Champions League for the Europa League winners in 2015, but with Ukranian champions Shakhtar Donetsk facing Inter in the other semi-final tomorrow night, all four sides remaining have already secured their places in the Champions League next season.

Instead, it is the prestige of a European trophy and prize money that is driving the ambitions of the semi-finalists despite the eery atmosphere with all games behind closed doors in northern Germany.

“I think it’s so important to win because every player needs to understand how it is to win a trophy for Manchester United,” said Bruno Fernandes, whose arrival at Old Trafford has had a positive impact to the English giants.

“I think if we finish with a trophy, it will not be perfect, but it will be a good year for us because Manchester United need to come back again to win some trophies and fight for the European competitions.” United have not won a trophy since they lifted the Europa League for the first time in 2017.

Sevilla are the kings of this competition, winning it five times since 2006, but have not claimed any silverware since they last lifted the Europa League in 2016.

Inter have made giant strides towards closing the gap to Juventus in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge, but are also seeking their first trophy since 2011.

The presence of United and Inter means there will be more previous Champions League winners in the Europa League semi-finals than UEFA’s premier club competition in Lisbon.

But European football’s governing body has peaked the interest of the continent’s biggest clubs with increased prize money in the Europa League in recent seasons.

Spanish and English clubs have combined to win the competition for the past eight years.
The EUR560 million distributed among clubs in the Europa League is still just a quarter of the EUR2 billion pot for the Champions League, but provides a significant financial boost, particularly with the coronavirus pandemic squeezing clubs’ finances on matchday income.

Sevilla have been the biggest beneficiaries of the laissez-faire attitude of some clubs to the importance of the Europa League in the past.

The Spanish side defeated Middlesbrough, Espanyol, Benfica and Dnipro in the first four of their five final victories before outgunning Liverpool four years ago.

Shakhtar also took advantage when they became only the second Ukrainian club to ever win a European trophy by beating Werder Bremen in 2009.

Both are shining examples how smart player trading can bridge an economic gap to the continent’s super clubs, but every season the rebuild gets harder as the likes of United and Inter’s financial muscle allows them to scoop up the best talent.