UEFA Europa League Explained: How the Tournament Works

Haris KruskicContributor IFebruary 13, 2019


Since its inception, the UEFA Europa League has solidified itself as an entertaining and competitive alternative for European teams unable to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Here's everything you need to know about the club soccer tournament, which has been played annually since 1971.


What is the UEFA Europa League?

The UEFA Europa League is a tournament involving 48 European club teams who compete across six rounds for the right to be crowned winners and to earn an automatic spot in the following season's UEFA Champions League.


When Did The UEFA Europa League start?

The first UEFA Europa League tournament was held during the 1971-72 season, and it has been staged every year since.


How Has The Tournament Changed Since 1971?

The competition was referred to as the UEFA Cup until 2009. It was traditionally a pure knockout tournament featuring 64 teams, with two-legged knockout ties staged home and away until those 64 teams were eventually whittled down to just two. The final was also played over two legs until 1997–98, when the showdown became a one-off match.

The tournament adopted an initial group stage in the 2004-05 season, with teams being drawn into eight groups of five. Unlike the Champions League, the UEFA Cup group stage was played in a single round-robin format, with each team playing two home and two away games rather than home and away double-headers.

The top three teams in each of the eight groups qualified for the main knockout round along with the eight third-placed teams in the UEFA Champions League group stage. From then on, a series of two-legged knockout ties were played before a one-off final, traditionally held on a Wednesday in May a week before the Champions League final.

For the 2009–10 season, the competition was rebranded as the UEFA Europa League in an attempt to increase its profile. An extra eight teams entered at the group stage (to make 48 teams in total), which meant 12 groups of four playing in a double round-robin format, with the group winners and runners-up advancing to the round of 32 along with the eight third-place teams from the UEFA Champions League group stage. 

Qualifiers would then continue the usual knockout stage process through the round of 32, round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final.


How Are The Teams Selected?

Qualification has changed significantly since 2009. All participants of the Europa League qualify either through their respective final standing in the domestic leagues or their performance in domestic cup competitions.

Generally, the higher an association is ranked in the UEFA coefficients, the later its teams start in the qualification process (there are four qualifying rounds in total). The complex coefficient system is generated by the results of teams representing each association during the previous five UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League seasons

Apart from the teams that qualify directly for the Europa League, each side eliminated from Champions League qualifying is given a second chance of European competition by being added to Europa League qualification. The six losing teams in the Champions League play-off round are automatically transferred to the Europa League group stage.

Here's the full breakdown of the 48 qualified teams:

• 17 teams that qualify directly to the group stage due to their association and club coefficients 

• 21 teams from the UEL qualifying process

 6 losers of the UEFA Champions League's fourth qualifying round

 4 non-domestic cup-winning losers of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round


What Happens Once The 48 Teams Qualify?

The qualifying teams are split into four different 'pots', with each pot being ranked from No. 1 to No. 4. The highest-rated club coefficients go into Pot 1, the next highest rated in Pot 2 and so on. Teams are then drawn from each pot until there are 12 groups of four. Teams from the same association cannot be drawn against each other.


How Does The Group Stage Work?

Teams that are drawn together compete in a double round-robin format called the group stage, with the group winners and runners-up advancing to the Round of 32, the first round of the knockout phase. The eight third-place teams from the UEFA Champions League group stage join the 24 UEL group stage qualifiers in the Round of 32.

The teams are ranked by points won during the group stage. Three points are awarded for a win, one point is awarded for a tie and no points for a loss. According to UEFA, if tied on points the following tiebreaking criteria are applied:

1. higher number of points obtained in the group matches played among the teams in question.

2. superior goal difference from the group matches played among the teams in question.

3. higher number of goals scored in the group matches played among the teams in question.

4. higher number of goals scored away from home in the group matches played among the teams in question.

If after having applied criteria 1. through 4., teams still have an equal ranking, criteria 1. through 4. are reapplied exclusively to the matches between the remaining teams to determine their final rankings. If this procedure does not lead to a decision, criteria 5. through 12. apply in the order given to the two or more teams still equal.

5. superior goal difference in all group matches.

6. higher number of goals scored in all group matches.

7. higher number of away goals scored in all group matches.

8. higher number of wins in all group matches.

9. higher number of away wins in all group matches.

10. lower disciplinary points total based only on yellow and red cards received in all group matches (red card = 3 points, yellow card = 1 point, expulsion for two yellow cards in one match = 3 points).

11. higher club coefficient.


How Does The Knockout Phase Work?


A draw takes place for the Round of 32, the first round of the knockout phase. The 32 remaining teams are split into two pots of 16, with one containing the eight third-place teams from the UEFA Champions League group stage and the eight best UEFA Europa League group winners, and the other holding the four worst Europa League group winners and the Europa League group runners-up.

A club is drawn from each pot to determine what the pairings will be, with the conditions that a winner and runner-up who played in the same group in the previous round can't be drawn together, and that clubs from the same domestic league are also kept apart.

The Round of 16, quarterfinal and semifinal draws do not have clubs split into separate pots. This means that the remaining clubs can be drawn together regardless of where they finished in their group, or whether they played in the same group or are from the same domestic league. As the draws for the quarterfinals and semifinals are held together before the quarterfinals are played, the identity of the quarterfinal winners is not known at the time of the semifinal draw.


Knockout Phase Legs and Tiebreakers

Teams are paired together for each round of the knockout phase, apart from the final, playing two matches at each team's home stadium. Each match is known as a 'leg', with the group winners hosting the second leg in the Round of 32. The team that scores more goals over the two legs advances to the next round.

If the aggregate score is level after both legs, the away goals rule is applied. This means that the club that scores more goals away from home over the two legs qualifies for the next round. If away goals are also equal, then extra time (an additional 30 minutes) is played.

The away goals rule is again used as a tiebreaker after extra time. If there are goals scored during extra time and the aggregate score is still level, the visiting team advances by virtue of more away goals scored.

If no goals are scored during extra time, the winners are decided by a penalty shootout. The team that scores more penalties from five attempts each wins. If the two teams are still tied after five attempts, they continue to alternate until one team scores their penalty and the other does not.

In the final (which is played as a single match in a neutral venue), if the score is level at the end of normal time, extra time is played. If the score is still level, it’s followed by a penalty shootout.


UEFA Europa League Schedule

June-August: Qualification

Late August: Group Stage Draw

September-December: Group Stage Matchdays

Mid-December: Round of 32 Draw

February: Round of 32

Late February: Round of 16 Draw

March: Round of 16

Mid-March: Quarterfinal and Semifinal Draws

April: Quarterfinals

May: Semifinals

Late May: Final


How do I watch the UEFA Europa League?

Every match is available to stream on B/R Live. You can buy a monthly or yearly subscription, or purchase individual matches for $2.99. Sign up for B/R Live here.

Watching from the U.K.? Every match is available on BT Sport, the BT Sport App and BT Sport.com.


UEFA Europa League Titles By Club

1. Sevilla: 5 (2006, 2007, 2014, 2015, 2016)

Tottenham won the first UEFA Europa League in 1972.
Tottenham won the first UEFA Europa League in 1972.UEFA

T2. Liverpool: 3 (1973, 1976, 2001)

T2. Juventus: 3 (1977, 1990, 1993)

T2. Inter Milan: 3 (1991, 1994, 1998)

T2. Atletico Madrid: 3 (2010, 2012, 2018)

T6. Tottenham Hotspur: 2 (1972, 1984)

T6. Feyenoord: 2 (1974, 2002)

T6. Borussia Monchengladbach: 2 (1975, 1979)

T6. Goteborg: 2 (1982, 1987)

T6. Real Madrid: 2 (1985, 1986)

T6. Parma: 2 (1995, 1999)

T6. Porto: 2 (2003, 2011)

T13. PSV Eindhoven: 1 (1978)

T13. Eintracht Frankfurt: 1 (1980)

T13. Ipswich Town: 1 (1981)

T13. Anderlecht: 1 (1983)

T13. Bayer Leverkusen: 1 (1988)

T13. Napoli: 1 (1989)

T13. Ajax: 1 (1992)

T13. Bayern Munich: 1 (1996)

T13. Schalke: 1 (1997)

T13. Galatasaray: 1 (2000)

T13. Valencia: 1 (2004)

T13. CSKA Moscow: 1 (2005)

T13. Zenit: 1 (2008)

T13. Shakhtar Donetsk: 1 (2009)

T13. Chelsea: 1 (2013)

T13. Manchester United: 1 (2017)