The new UEFA Cup group stage should give the tournament a whole new dynamic.
By Jim Wirth
The UEFA Cup has seen its share of changes since it evolved from the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1971/72, but the new group stage format which has been introduced this season is perhaps the most dramatic of them all.
The new format was approved last season at a meeting of the UEFA Executive Committee in Nyon to help give the tournament a higher profile. At its heart is a 40-team group phase which guarantees excitement for spectators and increased potential revenue for the clubs involved.
UEFA President Lennart Johansson said: "We have acted to refresh and develop the competition for the future. We believe that the proposed format will add a new and exciting element to the UEFA Cup, which will boost it as an attractive European club competition."
UEFA Chief Executive Lars-Christer Olsson told official publication uefadirect: "
Nowadays, sporting interest alone is not enough to ensure the success of a competition. It also has to be economically sound, so that the participating clubs can get something out of it."
The 32 teams who start their group stage campaign on Thursday night will be aiming for a place in the last 32 of the competition, where they will be joined by the teams who finish in third place in the eight UEFA Champions League groups.
The five teams in each group will not face each other home and away, as in the Champions League group stage, but instead must play each of their opponents once. All teams play two games away and two at home, with the draw deciding which teams they will face where.
For example, in Group A, Dutch side Feyenoord have home games against Heart of Midlothian FC and FC Schalke 04 and away games against Ferencvárosi TC and FC Basel 1893. Fixtures for all clubs can be found here in the UEFA Cup section of uefa.com.
Top three advance
After the four rounds of games have been completed, the teams who occupy the top three positions in each group will advance. From this point on, the competition will revert to the more familiar two-legged knockout format leading to the final at the Estádio José Alvalade in Lisbon on 18 May next year. It will be the 221st game of the 2004/05 competition, and the sixteenth and final UEFA Cup matchday for the teams concerned.