Often criticized, the Europa League matters once more

STOCKHOLM (AP) — 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 Jr., 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 on Wednesday, would mean so much to him.

In 2013, Mourinho — newly hired as Chelsea manager for the second time — was dismissive of the league, 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-criticized Europa League has saved his first season at Unite, and opened up exciting new possibilities in the process.

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 caliber: 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 during its campaign — but teams across Europe seem to be taking it seriously once again.

No more so than in England.

Premier League sides, more than anyone else, 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.

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

Since the Premier League’s inaugural year in 1992, England has provided just six of the 50 finalists in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, a disappointing figure given the wealth and supposed quality of its representatives. United was the third English winner in that time, after Liverpool in 2001 and Chelsea in 2013.

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 back door — via the Europa League — is increasingly enticing. The fact a team can win a trophy while doing so adds to the lure, as Mourinho pointed out on Wednesday.

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

It will be interesting to see how Arsenal approaches the Europa League next season after its fifth-place finish in the Premier League.

AC Milan, a seven-time European champion, will be the other stand-out name in the competition should the Italian team get through two qualifying rounds.

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