Dismissed at first, Europa Conference League captures the imagination
LONDON (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - The subject of some derision when it was introduced at the start of this season, the inaugural Europa Conference League is no longer attracting the same sniggers and now has the clubs in the semi-finals have their eye on a rare piece of European silverware.
Leicester take on Jose Mourinho's Roma and Feyenoord play Marseille in the first legs of their semi-final ties on Thursday (April 28), with the winners advancing to the final in Tirana, Albania on May 25.
Twenty-three years after the abolition of the Cup Winners' Cup, the idea behind Uefa's new third-tier European competition was supposedly to give clubs from smaller countries the chance to play more matches, earn more money and get more exposure.
Leicester and Marseille both ended up in the Conference League after being knocked out in the Europa League group stage.
The Foxes won last season's FA Cup and just missed out on Champions League qualification, so their manager Brendan Rodgers appeared to turn his nose up at the idea of going into the knockout phase of the new competition.
"I've got to be honest, I don't even know what the competition is," he said in December.
"With all due respect to the competition, I'm not sure what it is. But I will find out soon enough."
Having since knocked out Randers, Rennes and PSV Eindhoven on their way to the last four, Leicester are now in a European semi-final for the first time in their history and their run has been a welcome relief after a poor English Premier League campaign that has seen them languish in 10th place.
Roma's European pedigree is on another level, with the Italians having reached the European Cup final in 1984 before losing the 1991 Uefa Cup final.
They were Champions League semi-finalists only four years ago but this run has certainly captured the imagination and Mourinho has the chance to complete the sweep of the main European honours, having previously won two Champions Leagues as well as the Europa League.
"I don't want to lie to you guys and tell you this competition doesn't interest me. It does interest me. I would like to win it," he said.
The other semi-final brings together two former European Cup winners, with Feyenoord having won that prize in 1970 and Marseille doing so in 1993.
Feyenoord also won the Uefa Cup twice while Marseille have lost in four European finals.
Both sides have fervent fan bases and far from dismissing the Conference League, they have embraced it as an opportunity to end long trophy droughts.