The Europa League kicked off its second season in July, when qualifying play began. The former UEFA Cup began in 1971 and functions as Europe's ‘second' tournament, involving clubs that couldn't quite make the Champions League.
Who: 164 teams from 53 UEFA Associations will participate in the Europa League.
What: A ten-round tournament with four qualifying rounds involving two-legged ties, followed by a group stage filled with two-legged ties, followed by a knockout phase of four more rounds of two-legged ties, followed by a single-elimination final.
When: Play commenced on July 1 and will finish May 18, 2011.
Where: Considering the plethora of two-legged ties in this competition, it's fairly safe to assume that a team will play once at home and once somewhere in Europe. The final will be held at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
Why: Prestige, exposure and prize money. Clubs get €90,000 just for the qualifying rounds, €1M for making it to the group stages, and so on until they receive €2M for making the final and an additional €1M for winning it. Plus TV money, of course. Although the Champions League is the real goal, playing in Europa allows teams to gain familiarity with European competition, including the hassles of travel and the importance of squad rotation (ahem, Villa).
How: Through an elaborate system of coefficients and...yawn. Ok, I'm going to try to make this as simple as possible.
Entry into Europa League is determined by a club's domestic finish. There are 51 nations in UEFA, and each nation (more or less) sends their first-division title holder to the Champions League-at least, to the qualification rounds of the CL. After that, based upon how highly ranked the country is in UEFA, countries send a certain number of clubs to the Champions League and certain number to Europa. Often extra slots are available for domestic club holders. In England, this means that the top four clubs in the Premier League go to the CL, the winners of the FA Cup and the League Cup go to Europa, and because England is allowed three places in Europa, the fifth place winner goes as well. But because the domestic titles are often won by a top-four finisher, it's usually the fifth, sixth, and seventh placed clubs that participate in the Europa League.
We're just getting started.
The lowest-ranked leagues in UEFA earn entries into the first qualifying round of Europa, as well as the lower-placed clubs from higher scoring leagues. The winners of the two-legged ties go on to the second qualifying round. Again, the winners are the ones with the most aggregate goals at the end of regular time of the second game. Should this be a tie, away goals count for more. If it's still a draw, extra time kicks in, but away goals no longer matter. If the teams still can't figure out a way to win, a penalty shootout occurs. This process repeats itself and we reach the third round, where English teams typically enter. This year it was Liverpool that finished seventh, but with their two-legged 4-0 defeat of Rabotnički, they're on to the play-off round.
This is where things start rolling for fans of the Villa-or where they get really sad for the fans. Last year, Villa were eliminated by Rapid Vienna before the group stages. This year, Villa will face Rapid Vienna yet again, with the first leg on August 19 (just five days after the season starts). Manchester City get to play Romanian club FC Timisoara. The prize for navigating the play-off round is a spot in the group stages. The four teams in each group, which include the ten losing sides from the Champions League playoff round, play each other twice, and the two teams with the most points in each group go on to the knockout stages.
These 24 teams are joined by the eight teams that finished third in the Champions League group stage (which is how Liverpool ended up in Europa last year). Again, the matches are played in two-legged ties, home and away, with the winner on aggregate goals (or extra time, or...ok you get it by now) moving through to the next round. The final is nice and simple-a single match played in a neutral stadium. Atlético Madrid are the current title holders, having beat Liverpool in the semi-finals and Fulham in the final last year.