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May 23, 2013

UEFA plans to boost Europa League

UEFA is set to announce on Friday a change to Europa League rules that will award the winners a place in the Champions League - but it is as yet unclear what effect it could have on teams who qualify via league position.

The regulations of European competition run on a three-year cycle, the latest of which began in 2012. Any changes agreed will not take effect for another two seasons, meaning the winners of the 2015 Europa League final in Warsaw would be the first beneficiaries.

UEFA's executive committee, meeting in London ahead of the Champions League final, is eager to find a way to add greater importance to the Europa League amid concerns that teams from some of the major leagues do not take the competition - which replaced the UEFA Cup in 2009 - seriously enough.

The organisation's president Michel Platini has criticised French clubs' attitude to the competition, with Marseille, runners-up to Valencia in Gothenburg in the 2004 UEFA Cup, the only side to make the final of the top two competitions in the last 14 seasons.

Clubs in Italy, who used to dominate European football's secondary competition, rarely make any kind of impact, with Parma the last Italian team to reach the final, beating Marseille in Moscow in 1999.

UEFA will also consider raising to five the limit on the number of sides from one association in the Champions League, having for many years ruled that there should be a maximum of four.

Increasing the number of teams from the major nations would go against Platini's masterplan to make the Champions League more accessible to teams from smaller nations, which enabled clubs such as APOEL Nicosia to make giant strides. There is likely to be opposition to England, Germany and Spain being allowed a fifth participant.

The only time this number has been exceeded was in 2005, when Liverpool won the Champions League but finished fifth in the Premier League.

UEFA then had no rule to cover the Champions League winners not also qualifying via their league position. The Premier League insisted it would still enter the top four league clubs, meaning UEFA was forced to create a space in the first qualifying round for Liverpool, with no country protection for the Anfield club in the draws. This resulted in Liverpool and Chelsea both being drawn in Group G - a first for the competition.

But UEFA closed that loophole the same summer, ruling that if the Champions League winners come from an association that has four places, but that team finished outside the top four in the league, then the fourth-placed team drops into the Europa League. Spurs therefore played in the Europa League in the current campaign despite finishing fourth last season after Chelsea won the Champions League but finished sixth in the league.

If UEFA does not increase the maximum number of teams from one association from four to five, then a change to the Europa League regulations could impact on the nations that have four places via their domestic league - currently England, Germany and Spain.

Atletico Madrid, for instance, won the Europa League in 2012 but then only finished fifth in La Liga. With a limit of four clubs per country, Atletico winning a place in the Champions League would have relegated Malaga into the Europa.

The situation becomes further complicated should clubs from outside the top four of one league win both the Champions League and Europa League. The teams finishing in third and fourth would therefore have to compete in the Europa League the following season. It is highly improbable, though, that UEFA would ever permit six clubs from one association to enter the Champions League.

What is certain is that if the Europa League winners have already qualified for the Champions League, then the Europa League runners-up will not be entitled to enter the elite competition.

It has also been announced that the 2015 Champions League final will be played in the German city of Berlin, with the Europa League final in Warsaw, Poland.

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