Mocked by some who compare it unfavourably with the Champions League, Uefa's rebranded Europa League sees its group stage concluded tonight and tomorrow. Fifteen clubs are already through to the last 32 knock-out stage and they will be joined by a further eight sides who finished third in their Champions League group. Among those are giants like Liverpool, Juventus, Marseille and Atletico Madrid who will add a further boost to the credibility of the fledgling competition.
Atletico will become the fourth Spanish club in the Europa League, with Spain already better represented than any other country. Athletic Bilbao, Valencia and Villarreal have been performing well. The Basques have already qualified, though they aim to avenge an earlier 3-1 defeat by Werder Bremen tonight and finish top of their group. The Germans, with 14 goals the tournament's top scorers, will clinch the top spot instead should they avoid losing, or lose by only one goal, in Bilbao.
Athletic's six-goal striker Fernando Llorente is the competition's top scorer and Athletic, who have not played in the Champions League for more than a decade, are taking the competition seriously. They came through two qualifying ties to reach the group stage and their San Mames home has been full to its 40,000 capacity for all three of their victorious home games, ample justification that the competition exists for both great clubs and emerging sides who may miss out of the Champions League.
Valencia, fourth in the Primera Liga and top of their group, play at Italian side Genoa tomorrow, needing a draw to qualify, but so tight is their group, a defeat could end their interest in the competition. Unai Emery's side won 3-2 at home when the sides met earlier in the season. The tournament has failed to capture the attention of Valencia fans used to watching Champions League football. Average crowds for their three Europa League home games in their 55,000 Mestella home have been 19,000. The competition is held in higher regard in Genoa, who had a crowd of 34,000 for their last home game against Lille. Requiring a victory against Valencia to guarantee qualification, a 40,000 full house is expected at the Luigi Ferraris, one of football's most atmospheric arenas. Among the tournament favourites, Valencia will be strengthened by the signing of Argentine midfielder Alejandro Dominguez, the Russian Premier Liga player of the year, from Rubin Kazan.
Villarreal wrap up their campaign with a home game against FC Salzburg tomorrow. Both sides have already qualified from Group G, with Salzburg the surprise leaders after their impeccable record of five consecutive wins - the only side to boast such a record. Uefa can feel satisfied with how the competition is developing - and the added attention it will receive with the knock-out stage. firstname.lastname@example.org
Bilbao v Werder Bremen, KO 12.05am, Aljazeera Sport + 5