Because less players equal more space to pass and move

Europa League Hits the Net

Not many people will want to admit this, but the Europa League is rather entertaining.

Long derided as the Champions League’s younger, slightly odd brother wearing it’s elder sibling’s hand-me-downs and scuffed shoes, this year it’s hitting puberty, staying out late and trying illegal substances.

The Europa League is great because it throws together fallen giants, Champions League cast offs and teams who collected enough tokens from the back of cornflakes packets to enter, and then bans them from defending. It’s been addicted to goals – swallowing them, snorting them; it cannot get enough of the things.

These aren’t your Champions League-esque one-sided affairs though. Sure there have been numerous bulging nets in the most prestigious European competition of them all, but they’ve all been going past the same ‘keeper. Little bro meanwhile sits two football junkies in a room and dares them each to take one more hit.

To further understand this craving, let’s look at the aggregate scores from the last-16:

Fulham 5 – 4 Juventus
Werder Bremen 5 – 5 Valencia
Marseille 2 – 3 Benfica
Standard Liege 4 – 1 Panathinaikos
Liverpool 3 – 1 Lille
Sporting Lisbon 2 – 2 Atlético Madrid
Anderlecht 5 – 6 Hamburg
Wolfsburg 3 – 2 Rubin Kazan

There are 53 goals there, 33 of which came in the second legs. There’s not a game there that was over before the return leg, or that turned into a rout. The Liverpool home game probably stands out as being the most comfortable, but Lille certainly gave them the munchies after the first leg.

There was something for everyone throughout the ties, from Fulham’s (fallen) giant killing at the Cottage to a classic which-way-will-it-go game in Bremen where Valencia took full advantage of the away goals rule. We also got a sneak peek at the stars of the future such as Anderlecht’s Romelu Lukaku, Bremen’s Marko Marin and Lille’s fantastically named Eden Hazard, who all got amongst the goals in this round.

Ultimately, even if the defending isn’t quite up to scratch or the initial group stages don’t take your fancy, the knockout rounds capture the imagination and integrity of European competition and the value in being crowned champion of your continental peers, even if that victory will always be overshadowed by its older brother.