The Europa League may not be the cream of continental silverware, that right is reserved for the Champions League, but there remains a certain allure and prestige of winning this iconic competition nonetheless.
Indeed this is a tournament not to be sniffed at. Winners of the Champions League’s little brother stretch back to Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town and Louis van Gaal’s Ajax. This competition is, quite simply, fraught with moments of historic greatness.
It is not simply a backdoor to the Champions League, though that is certainly one of the perks. Since its rebranding from the UEFA Cup to the Europa League in 2009/10, top clubs have continued to conjure up moments of sporting excellence.
Man Utd and Villarreal are the latest to reach the showpiece final. The English giants have previous in this competition, having lifted the trophy in 2017 under Jose Mourinho, while this is Villarreal’s first final, but they do have ‘Mr Europa League’ Unai Emery at the helm.
There are some big names set to collide in Poland, as there have been in the past. But, one or two may have slipped your minds. We all remember the Eden Hazards and Paul Pogbas of previous finals, but there are a few other notable names to have scooped a medal since the rebranding a decade ago…
Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid)
Winning season: 2009/10
Let’s start with a biggie. Sergio Aguero, the instinctive goal-getter who has fired Man City to plenty of trophies and kept Sky Blue fans of their seats for nearly a decade. But, there is still one frontier the Argentine is yet to cross with the Citizens, and that is in Europe.
Continental silverware may have eluded Aguero in the north-west, but he has already secured European success in his career. In 2009/10, Atletico Madrid, under Quique Sanchez Flores, famously beat Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in the Hamburg final, with Aguero providing two assists in a 2-1 win.
Atleti were knocked out of the Champions League group stages, and so dropped down to the Europa League, where wins over Galatasaray, Sporting CP, Valencia and Liverpool set up a contest against the Cottagers. The Londoners took it to extra-time, but a Diego Forlan brace broke Fulham hearts.
Joel Robles (Atletico Madrid)
Winning season: 2009/10
It’s a strange collection of medals for the former Everton goalkeeper: an FA Cup win with Wigan, and a Europa League triumph with Atletico Madrid. The Spaniard famously started in the historic 1-0 win over Man City at Wembley, keeping a clean sheet as Roberto Martinez’s side pulled off the unthinkable.
Unfortunately, he could only muster a spot on the bench as Atleti put Fulham to the sword. A young, up-and-coming shot-stopper, he was playing second fiddle to another young, up-and-coming shot-stopper, a certain David de Gea. Atleti triumphed to a rousing Madrid procession and finished comfortably in the top half of the La Liga table, while Wigan infamously clinched unprecedented silverware but simultaneously suffered the ignominy of relegation.
Joao Moutinho (Porto)
Winning season: 2010/11
Moutinho patrolled the Wolves midfield as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were dumped out of the competition this season by eventual finalists Sevilla. But, elimination was probably not as much a dispiriting blow to the ageing midfield general as some of his younger compatriots, as he already has a medal sitting proudly on his mantlepiece.
The 2010/11 Europa League final was an all-Portugal affair, with Andre Villas-Boas’ Porto taking on a Domingos-inspired Braga. It was a tame encounter in Dublin, with Radamel Falcao scoring the only goal of the game at the Aviva Stadium, but it put AVB on the map as the Second Coming of Jose Mourinho.
Nicolas Otamendi (Porto)
Winning season: 2010/11
Villas-Boas’ Dragons may have included midfield architects like Moutinho, goalscoring fiends of Falcao’s ilk and exceptional fledging talent from across the Atlantic in James Rodriguez, but he also had a pretty formidable backline, with Otamendi the chief policeman in that watertight rearguard.
With such experience in Europe it seemed almost bizarre how Man City continued to falter in the latter stages (until this season), but former centre-back Otamendi had already sauntered across the final frontier the Citizens are trying so desperately to cross. Falcao got the decisive goal on the day against Braga, but Otamendi kept the all-important clean sheet.
Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid)
Winning season: 2011/12
Wait, you thought Sevilla were the dominant Europa League force of the 2010s? Au contraire my dear friend. Diego Simeone may have reached two Champions League finals and scooped a La Liga title amid the backdrop of Spain’s dominant duopoly of Real and Barca, but he also has two Europa league medals to his name.
After winning the competition in 2010, Atleti thought ‘that was pretty good’ and decided to do it again two years later. De Gea was gone, but they brought in another goalkeeping starlet in Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, and he was exceptional in the 3-0 final win over Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao.
Falcao was the star of the show again with a clinical brace, while Brazilian maestro Diego showcased his Samba silk and even Arda Turan, back when he was actually good, produced a masterclass, but it was Courtois, Miranda and Co, who built up a bulwark at the back.
Nathan Ake (Chelsea)
Winning season: 2012/13
There’s a pattern emerging here. City have acquired yet another player with European silverware to his name. Yes, you may recognise Ake as the ball-playing Dutchman who suffered relegation with Bournemouth and was being openly tapped up by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the pitch at Old Trafford last year, but he too has triumphed in Europe.
Rafa Benitez moved to Stamford Bridge to much displeasure among the Chelsea fanbase in 2012. Pitchforks were at the ready and unsavoury banners were unfurled due to his association with Liverpool and previous comments made about the club, but he succeeded where he had previously succeeded with Valencia nine years prior, by lifting the Europa League.
Among his charges was a young Dutchman by the name of Ake, a technical defender who featured twice in the lead up to the final in his homeland, where Chelsea triumphed 2-1 over Benfica in Amsterdam, and Benitez could leave the capital a satisfied man and a changed attitude among west Londoners.
Stephane Mbia (Sevilla)
Winning season: 2013/14, 2014/15
Stephane Mbia’s ill-fated switch to Queens Park Rangers in 2012 will be largely remembered for that kick out at Thomas Vermaelen against Arsenal. That red card was a premonition of things to come as QPR ultimately suffered relegation at the end of the season, and Mbia traded London for Andalusia.
He may have found life in the Premier League tough, but under Unai Emery he found a home at the base of his midfield, protecting the backline and starring alongside the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Alberto Moreno at left-back. In the 2013/14 final his midfield exploits helped keep a clean sheet against Benfica in a goalless stalemate and he even scored in the penalty shootout
And, he would be at it again the following season as Los Nervionenses beat Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 3-2 in the Warsaw showpiece, alongside another future Premier League relegation sufferer, Grzegorz Krychowiak. Good enough to win a Europa League, but not good enough to keep QPR and West Brom afloat.
Denis Suarez (Sevilla)
Winning season: 2014/15
Up there with Arsenal’s most baffling and atrocious loan signings. We’re talking about Kim Kallstrom territory. But, prior to that 2019 disaster-class at the Emirates, Suarez was making headways as one of Europe’s most promising youngsters, having shone on loan at Sevilla in 2014/15 from Barcelona.
The Spaniard scored the club’s third-most Europa League goals that season en route to the final, but he was unfortunately an unused substitute in the main event. That didn’t stop him earning a move to Villarreal and then back to Barcelona, but he hasn’t really kicked on as many were hoping for him.
Fernando Llorente (Sevilla)
Winning season: 2015/16
One of those players that you feel must have half a dozen or so Europa League medals knocking about in his basement, but Llorente has only actually clinched the title once, and he was an unused substitute in that final against Liverpool. He started in the 2011/12 final for Athletic Bilbao under Bielsa but was unable to impact the game as Simeone’s Atleti ran riot, but he triumphed four years later as Sevilla completed their three-peat, with a 3-1 win over Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
Conor Gallagher (Chelsea)
Winning season: 2018/19
He may not be the most prominent name, but the Epsom-born midfielder has had quite the career already. In 2017 he famously took home the FIFA U-17 World Cup, starring in that exceptional Three Lions side — managed by Steve Cooper — which included players like Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, while last season he guided Swansea to the Championship play-offs under Cooper.
But, sandwiched between those events, he made the bench last campaign as Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea battered and bruised Arsenal 4-1 in the Baku final. He also scooped the club’s Academy Player of the Year award that season to match.
Jamie Cumming (Chelsea)
Winning season: 2018/19
Another youngster handed a berth on the bench in 2018/19. Cumming played his football at the Lamex Stadium this season for League Two side Stevenage on loan, as part of Chelsea’s infamous loan policy, but he will never forget that night in Azerbaijan.
And what about the UEFA Cup…..
Prior to the Europa League rebranding, there were some pretty considerable names who lifted the UEFA Cup that you may not remember. We won’t go into too much detail but here are just a handful of recipients to jog your memory.
Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk 2008/09)
Willian (Shakhtar Donetsk 2008/09)
Andrey Arshavin (Zenit Saint Petersburg 2007/08)
Dani Alves (Sevilla 2005/06, 2006/07)
Yuri Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow 2004/05)
Nuno Espirito Santo (Porto 2002/03)
Robin van Persie (Feyenoord 2001/02)
Gheorghe Hagi (Galatasaray 1999/2000)
Gianluigi Buffon (Parma 1998/99)
Diego Simeone (Inter Milan 1997/98)
Jens Lehmann (Schalke 1996/97)
Antonio Conte (Juve 1992/93)