HAMBURG, Germany, May 13 (Reuters) - The Europa League was given a cool reception when it replaced the old UEFA Cup this season, but the first edition has been far from the lame duck tournament many had predicted.
The knockout stages have produced enough drama and full grounds to restore some dignity to a competition that is in its third incarnation, having started life as the Fairs Cup in the 1960s.
Unfashionable Fulham’s run to the final, knocking out Juventus and titleholders Shakhtar Donetsk on the way, has been the highlight but there has been plenty of other drama on the way to brighten a contest that has struggled ever since the old European Cup was expanded into the Champions League in 1992.
“It’s been a great competition, we can only say good things about it,” Fulham manager Roy Hodgson told reporters after his team lost 2-1 to Atletico Madrid in Wednesday’s final.
“We’ve played fantastic teams, great occasions at interesting places against top class teams, here we are in the stadium with 49,000 people and an excellent game of football.”
High points this season included Atletico Madrid silencing Anfield with an extra-time goal to knock out Liverpool on away goals in the semi-final and David Villa’s memorable hat-trick for Valencia away to Werder Bremen.
Mladen Petric’s stunning bicycle kick goal for SV Hamburg at Standard Liege was another unforgettable moment, along with Diego Forlan’s goal brace for Atletico in the final, including the winner four minutes from the end of extra time.
Perhaps most importantly, none of the clubs opted to field reserve teams in the knockout stages, a practice which blighted the UEFA Cup in its final years.
This was partly by luck as much as design as teams such as Fulham and Atletico Madrid had no chance of qualifying for the Champions League next season.
A new format in the group stage also helped revive the tournament, which had been steadily going down hill after reaching its peak in the mid to late 1980s.
In the last few seasons, the UEFA Cup consisted of groups of five, which was almost incomprehensible and resulted in teams sitting out match days and supporters losing interest.
This season, it employed the same groups of four system used in the Champions League with matches every Thursday, making it simpler to follow and allowing the competition to build momentum.
“I think the format is much more interesting now as it’s much closer to the Champions League and I think UEFA should be congratulated for having two competitions to keep so many top quality teams involved,” said Hodgson.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve entertained our fans and plenty of people here.”
Many, however, still feel the competition is too long — Fulham’s appearance in the final ended a 10-month odyssey that saw them play 19 matches — and loses credibility when teams parachute into the knockout stages after being eliminated from the Champions League.
This year’s competition has also been used to stage an experiment which could change the face of refereeing.
From the group stage onwards, matches have featured two extra linesman placed behind the goals to help the referee make decisions over incidents in the penalty area.
Soccer’s rule-making body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), will evaluate the results on Tuesday and may make a decision on whether to implement the change throughout the game.
The move, however, has failed to prevent controversies, in particular in Atletico’s 0-0 draw at home to Valencia, which ended with furious Valencia protests after they were denied a late penalty. Atletico advanced to the semi-finals on away goals after a 2-2 draw in Valencia.
The international players’ association FIFPro was also not impressed saying a majority of players said they had not noticed any improvement with the extra officials.
“No less than 70 percent of the players made it clear that during the experiment with the additional referees, they have not noticed any difference compared to the old situation,” it said in a report.
“A similar percentage could not indicate one situation from the six group matches in which the fifth or sixth referee had positive influence on the refereeing.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury