PARIS: The new Europa Conference League, introduced at the beginning of this season, was a subject of ridicule when it was introduced and has proved to be a hit. European silverware.
Leicester City will face Jose Mourinho’s Roma and Feyenoord this Thursday in the first leg of their semi-final against Marseille, with the winners qualifying for the final in Tirana at the end of May.
Twenty-three years after the abolition of the Cup Winners’ Cup, the idea behind the new European competition at the third tier of UEFA would give clubs from smaller countries the opportunity to play more matches, earn more money and gain more exposure.
It has seen the unheralded Norwegians of Bodo/Glimt go six past Roma and later knock out Celtic on their way to the quarter-finals, while Mura’s Slovenians claimed a famous win over Tottenham Hotspur as the English giants were knocked out of the group stage.
Both Bodo/Glimt and Mura started the season in the Champions League, but were effectively relegated due to defeats in the preliminary rounds.
The same was true for Leicester and Marseille, who each ended up in the Conference League after being eliminated from the Europa League group stage.
Leicester won the FA Cup last season and just missed out on Champions League qualifiers, so their manager Brendan Rodgers appeared to be sniffing at the idea of going into the knockout stages of the new competition.
“I have to be honest, I don’t even know what the competition is,” he said in an interview with broadcaster BT Sport.
“With all due respect to the competition, I’m not sure what it is. But I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.”
Leicester has since eliminated Danish Randers, French club Rennes and former European Cup winner PSV Eindhoven en route to the semi-finals.
Their story is by no means the most romantic – after all, the Foxes won the Premier League in 2016 and are the 15th richest club in the world according to the latest Deloitte Football Money League.
But after losing a Champions League quarter-final to Atlético Madrid five years ago, Leicester are now in a European semi-final for the first time in their history.
Roma’s European ancestry is on a different level, with the Italians reaching the European Cup final in 1984, before later losing a UEFA Cup final.
Four years ago they were still semi-finalists of the Champions League, but this run has certainly sparked the imagination.
More than 65,000 fans were at the Stadio Olimpico to watch them beat Bodo/Glimt in the quarter-finals and there will be another huge crowd next week for the second leg.
Mourinho, meanwhile, could take major European honors by previously winning two Champions Leagues, as well as the UEFA Cup in Porto and its successor, the Europa League, in Manchester United.
“I don’t want to lie to you and tell you that this game doesn’t interest me. It does interest me. I would like to win it,” Mourinho said at the start of the campaign.
The other semi-final brings together two former European Cup winners, with Feyenoord winning that prize in 1970 and Marseille in 1993.
Feyenoord also won the UEFA Cup twice, while Marseille lost in four European finals, including the 1991 European Cup and the Europa League in 2018.
Both sides have ardent fans, but in the era of the super club, the glory of the Champions League is beyond their reach and even success in the Europa League is in high demand.