The tournament formerly known as the UEFA Cup kicks off in
earnest tonight and excitement across the continent is palpable.
While the presence of teams such as Debrecen, APOEL Nicosia and Unirea Urziceni
may lend a feel of the newly branded Europa League to this season's Champions
League, tonight sees the start of the real thing.
This is the genuine article, with the likes of Hapoel Tel
Aviv, Politehnica Timisoara and Sheriff Tiraspol all in action, each one hoping
to win through to a round of 32 by mid-December, when they will be joined by
eight Champions League dropouts in time for the restart in February.
Leaving the low form of wit to one side for a moment, has
this competition really got what it takes to sustain interest over the upcoming
months before it actually gets exciting - around semi-final time?
On the face of it, Roy Hodgson certainly doesn't seem to
think so. The Fulham boss is set to send out a second-string side against CSKA
Sofia, knowing how tired his players were on their return from playing Amkar
Perm in Russia
With Wolves on the horizon at the weekend, Hodgson is
willing to sacrifice his best players in Bulgaria to safeguard his team's
Premier League ambitions.
It seems odd that he would do that, given the blood, sweat
and tears expended in trying to qualify for the Europa League last season.
But Hodgson is a wily old manager, and he knows exactly what
he is doing.
First of all, he believes - at least he claims to believe -
in his second string. Fulham have a surprisingly strong squad and, as Hodgson
has pointed out, most of those who will play in Bulgaria are international players.
And second, home form is the key to progression. As long as
games at Craven Cottage can be won - and there is no reason to think they
cannot be - Fulham will put themselves in a strong position to be in the hat
for the last 32.
Quite how the 100 or so travelling Fulham fans will react to
a bunch of squad players taking to the field is another matter.
But at least they will be able to say they were among the
first to see the bizarre spectacle of five referees officiating one game.
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Plus we've got live scoring of all the rest, if the fates of
Hapoel Tel Aviv, Politehnica Timisoara and Sheriff Tiraspol are of particular interest.