The Europa League has its share critics and detractors. It's a second-rate competition, it puts an absolute anvil of travel demands on a team's schedule and it pales in comparison to the Champions League, both in terms of stature and financial windfall.
While there is still prestige that comes with a European trophy, the competition has become the Last Chance Kitchen to the Champions League's Top Chef in many ways, with the ultimate goal being just to get entered into the highest level. That incentive has been a boon to the competition, though. It has forced bigger clubs who would otherwise be unhappy on this stage and might use it to trot out an XI featuring youth players and reserves to take it more seriously. The prime example is Manchester United, who used it as a way back to the Champions League after a sixth-place finish in England a season ago, and here the Red Devils are, a year later, ready to kick off a round-of-16 series on the UCL stage.
The knockout field, which features third-place finishers from the Champions League group stage, has some pretty intriguing teams. From the likes of Arsenal, Napoli, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund to Lyon (which is hosting the final) and on down the line, the small clubs have their work cut out to knock off the humbled powers en route to the crown.
So what would make for the best possible final for neutrals who might not otherwise be tuning into the competition? Here are five that would be littered with storylines and put butts in the seats, drawing plenty of prestige-worthy spotlight:
BORUSSIA DORTMUND vs. ARSENAL
There are plenty of ties between the two sides. Unfortunately, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn't eligible to play for Arsenal in the Europa League, so that would put a damper on this matchup, but it wouldn't remove the storyline of his new club vs. his old one, and he'd be counted on to provide plenty of pre-match fireworks for all to behold. Henrikh Mkhitaryan would be active and able to face his old side, though, and factor in that Arsenal's chief scout, Sven Mislintat, used to hold that role at Dortmund, and there's no shortage of overlap. Seeing Christian Pulisic take on Premier League competition could be a nice preview of things to come, too.
NAPOLI vs. ATLETICO MADRID
Maurizio Sarri and Diego Simeone matching wits. One side of attacking stars like Dries Mertens, Marek Hamsik and Lorenzo Insigne vs. another that features Antoine Griezmann, Diego Costa and Saul Niguez. Yep, that will do.
BORUSSIA DORTMUND vs. ATLETICO MADRID
Dortmund and Atletico are arguably the two most popular "other" clubs in their respective leagues, in that Germany is dominated by Bayern Munich and Spain is dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid. They're never underdogs, but given the financial discrepancy these days, they're also never the favorites and their fan support is immense. This would be special.
ARSENAL vs. ATLETICO MADRID
Simeone has been touted as a potential replacement for Arsene Wenger when the time comes for him to move on, and what better way to hammer that point home than by going head-to-head with his elder? Never mind the fact that the starpower on the field would command your attention.
AC MILAN vs. NAPOLI
An all-Italian final would be a nice touch for the end of the European season, given that Serie A is giving us the only true title race on the continent. Factor in that Napoli could be vying for a league-cup double and that AC Milan would likely be playing for its Champions League life, and you'd get quite a spectacle.
ALSO IN THE RUNNING
Among the numerous other permutations, these five matchups would also give us plenty to talk about, though the odds are against them taking place:
Nice vs. AC Milan - Mario Balotelli's side vs. one of his former teams? By all means, please do go ahead.
Lyon vs. Marseille - Two of France's most successful clubs, playing at Lyon's home stadium, no less, would render an absolutely phenomenal atmosphere.
Arsenal vs. Celtic - Arsene Wenger vs. Brendan Rodgers for a European trophy. It's a UK tabloid dream!
AC Milan vs. Arsenal - The two sides have European history with one another and used to share the bigger stage. It'd be fitting and quite symbolic, actually, to see them in a second-tier final. And it'd likely mean that one is going to the Champions League, while the other is left out yet again.
Borussia Dortmund vs. RB Leipzig - One of Germany's most widely beloved clubs in Dortmund vs. one of its most widely despised in RB Leipzig, over how it came to be and its commercial support from Red Bull.