The UEFA Champions League and Europa League have a troubled relationship, with the latter often called a dumping ground for Europe’s elite competition. But the way one can see it, the second-tier tournament is a step in the right direction for clubs to rise back to continental glory.
Traditionally a knockout tournament, the Europa League - formerly the UEFA Cup - adopted a group-stage approach from 2004/05 and has since been played in a format where teams, who have initially qualified for the competition, battle for top honors with those who were knocked out from the Champions League.
At times, clubs that participate are to be too good for the rest, as in the case of Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, and Sevilla, to name a few. But these teams have very well rewritten history and lifted the Europa League trophy in style.
Atletico Madrid win first-ever Europa League final
Atletico Madrid’s run to the 2009/10 final - the competition rechristened as Europa League from UEFA Cup - was a retribution sign following a dismal campaign in the La Liga, where they finished seventh. While having a plethora of superstars like Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, Los Colchoneros could only thank the heavens for reaching the summit clash against a red-hot Fulham team.
ON THIS DAY: In 2010, Atletico beat Fulham 2-1 in the Europa League final, Diego Forlan with an extra-time winner. pic.twitter.com/dKA3xTIDDw— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 12, 2016
Fulham, playing in just their first-ever European final, were favored to cause a spectacular upset at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg, Germany. But, Uruguay’s Forlan dented the Cottagers’ hopes with a sensational strike in the 116th minute of extra time.
The 2-1 victory helped Atletico secure their second European success since the Intercontinental Cup in 1974, and the club later would go on to win two more Europa titles in 2011/12 and 2017/18.
Chelsea, only club to win UCL and UEL in back-to-back seasons
After securing the Champions League in May 2012, Chelsea found redemption in European football once again as they won the 2012/13 Europa League.
The Blues, troubled with league form and the subsequent appointment of former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez on an interim basis, needed a second miracle to rise back to the top of their game in Europe as they took on a mighty Benfica team in the final.
The London club took the field without the injured Eden Hazard and John Terry, and their absence saw Chelsea struggling to counter Benfica’s gameplay - as they conceded eight minutes into Fernando Torres’ opener with a 68th-minute penalty goal from Benfica striker Oscar Cardozo.
Just as the game seemed to go into additional extra time, defender Branislav Ivanovic took a giant leap to head the winning goal in the 93rd minute and give Chelsea the honor of being the first club to win the Champions League and Europa League in back-to-back seasons, and the first English side to win all three European competitions - UCL, UEL and the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup.
Sevilla complete hat-trick of Europa titles
Spanish giants Sevilla are the most successful team in Europa League history with five titles to their name, but their legacy in European football touched a new high when they secured a third successive crown in the 2015/16 season.
As defending champions, Los Rojiblancos dropped back into the second-tier competition upon finishing third in the Champions League group stages. Going forward, it was simply the Spanish side showcasing what they do best.
Liverpool, who entered a European final for the first time since 2005, seemed on course to end their European jinx but a second-half masterclass by Unai Emery’s men condemned Jurgen Klopp’s Reds to yet another failure to bring home a European title.
Liverpool took the lead through Daniel Sturridge in the 35th minute, but 17 seconds after the restart, Sevilla found themselves back in the driver’s seat with Kevin Gameiro’s strike. Going forward, Coke punished the Reds’ fragile defence with his twin strikes in the 64th-minute and 70th-minute.
The result, a 3-1 win for Sevilla, meant Los Rojiblancos secured a third successive Europa title, a record fifth in total, and became just the third side to win the competition via a third-place finish in the Champions League group stage.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Javier Soriano