By Greg Lea.
It was a rule change that, in hindsight, should really have been introduced sooner. When Uefa decided in 2014 that future winners of the Europa League would automatically qualify for the following season's Champions League, the tournament was given a new dimension and its participants another incentive to take it seriously.
Sevilla were the first club to benefit from the amendment, with their 3-2 triumph over Ukranian outfit Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the final last May allowing them to enter the group stage of Europe's primary club competition this term despite only finishing fifth in La Liga. The Rojiblancos, who have won the tournament in each of the last two years and four times since 2006, are in a similar position this time around, too: ahead of the first leg of their round of 32 tie with Molde on Thursday, Sevilla's best chance of qualifying for the Champions League is by winning the Europa League once again.
In that respect, Unai Emery's charges who currently trail fourth-placed Villarreal by eight points in La Liga with just 14 matches remaining are far from alone. Right across Europe's major divisions, there are a number of other sides who will be eyeing the competition as the most favourable route into the Champions League.
Chief among them are Manchester United, who did not expect to be in this position when the season got under way last August; having finished fourth in 2014/15, the club's fans expected manager Louis van Gaal to lead the team into the latter stages of the Champions League, but some disastrous performances and results in the group stage saw them fail to make it over the first hurdle.
With their domestic form also suffering between the end of November and the start of 2016 the narrow 2-1 win over Swansea City in early January was the Red Devils' first victory in seven Premier League encounters United, who face Midtjylland in the first knockout round, may consider winning the Europa League to be more realistic than overhauling the six-point margin separating them from the top four back at home. Rivals Liverpool are likely to be thinking along similar lines as they prepare to take on Augsburg, with the gap between them and fourth-placed Manchester City standing at nine points.
Athletic Bilbao are another club who find themselves in a comparable situation. The Basques were expected to challenge Villarreal, Valencia and Sevilla for the final Champions League spot behind Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid this season, but now look unlikely to make up the 13-point gap between them and Villarreal in fourth. Bilbao's two-legged clash with Marseille is one of the highlights of the round of 32; should they advance to the last 16, the La Liga outfit will fancy their chances of making the final for only the second time since 1977.
Over in Italy, Lazio will also be targeting success in the Europa League as a means of reaching the 2016/17 edition of the Champions League. Although Stefano Pioli's men finished third last term, they missed out on a place in the group stage of Europe's foremost tournament after losing a play-off to Bayer Leverkusen. With 25 matches played in Serie A, Lazio are 13 points behind the top three and thus extremely unlikely to secure Champions League football via their top flight placing. If the Rome-based club are able to negotiate their upcoming tie with Galatasaray, though, Pioli may begin to divert his attention away from domestic matters and towards the Europa League.
Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke will all fancy their chances of getting their hands on the trophy this year, but the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Lazio will be fully aware that they are playing for a place in the Champions League as well as a piece of silverware in the next few months.