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Zuba: Europa League flies under radar

| Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Action in the Champions League is heating up with round-of-16 matchups Tuesday and Wednesday. But some of the most interesting soccer is happening elsewhere.

Yes, Manchester City played Barcelona and Juventus played Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.

Heavy international hitters, for sure. Teams in the Champions League qualify because they were at or near the tops of their home tables the season before. Often they’re there, year after year, particularly when they come from leagues featuring a couple dominant teams and little parity.

Manchester City is second in the Premier League. Barcelona is second in Spain’s La Liga. Juventus is first in Italy’s Serie.

Borussia Dortmund is the only team of the four that played Tuesday not at the top of its league right now. After a rough first part of the season, Borussia sits at No. 12 in Germany’s Bundesliga.

The Bundesliga represents a great example of a league lacking parity. Teams have struggled in recent years to compete with powerhouse Bayern Munich. Borussia had been doing so, but even then it was in many ways a two-team contest. And then Bayern snatched away Borussia’s top-scoring striker Robert Lewandowski.

Witness the crippling effects by following Borussia’s current season.

Although winning the Champions League matters to top teams like Bayern Munich, these kinds of teams often have a lot of other things going for them. They’re the teams poaching players, not being poached from. They’re winning other titles in their home leagues. They’re enjoying international fan bases.

For many of the teams in the Europa League, on the other hand, winning the Europa League is the thing. It’s their chance for international recognition. It’s their chance to win a championship. It’s their chance to be first, rather than perpetually sixth, seventh, eighth.

It makes for some compelling storylines, with teams unquestionably giving it their all. Talent abounds as well, because Europa League teams were all in the top halves of their home leagues last season. And some of the teams in the ongoing round of 32 dropped down from the Champions League after being eliminated there.

So in the Europa League, you find teams with chips on their shoulders for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s underdog status in their home leagues or elimination from the Champions League, Europa League teams typically don’t have to stretch too far to find some motivational material.

Some teams in the Champions League, like Borussia Dortmund, might have similar motivations, but this kind of extra motivation is much more widespread in the Europa League.

Can you imagine if the top two teams from each power college football conference go to participate in one tournament, and the next couple in each conference participated in a concurrent second-tier but still prestigious tournament?

Imagine the controversy, the emotion, the we-have-something-to-prove mentality from the teams who couldn’t quite crack the very top of their conferences.

You can see it already with bowl games. Even if it’s not the national championship, a bowl game can matter to a school as a resume-builder and an attraction for recruits. It also keeps fans interested.

The Europa League functions on similar principles. It provides more teams with opportunities for competitive action, in this case on an international level. It’s important for clubs making pitches to potential transfers and for keeping fans engaged and thinking their team’s games are important.

If after Tuesday and Wednesday’s Champions League games, you’re hungry for more and can’t wait for the next round beginning March 10, check out the Europa League games Thursday.

At the very least, if you follow a bit of Europa League action, you can have some fun trying to pronounce “Borussia Mönchengladbach.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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