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Clubs in limbo over Europa League

When Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City met at Wembley on Sunday it was presumed they were in a Europa League play-off as well as an FA Cup semi-final.

Few knew the rules for European qualifying changed when the UEFA Cup was rebranded and remodelled to be the poor man's Champions League and that, Stoke's place in the Europa League is not assured despite fellow finalists Manchester City almost certainly in Europe via their league position.

Prior to 2009, FA Cup runners-up would automatically enter the UEFA Cup when the FA Cup winners were already in Europe by any route. Now the Wembley losers only play in the Europa League if they have lost to a team which has qualified for the Champions League.

Rule 2.0.4 of the Europa League has left plenty confused. On Monday the Premier League appeared to be unaware of the rule when it initially suggested Stoke would be in Europe, which was then contradicted by the Football Association. But now those in the corridors of power have conceded that European qualification is no longer quite so simple.

It is a situation which could bring the integrity of the Premier League into question. The FA Cup final comes eight days before the end of the Premier League season, which means at least two key fixtures could impact on European qualification.

The Premier League, which has refused to answer any hypothetical questions, is left praying that Stoke win the FA Cup, which would end the conspiracy theories or suggestions that teams are not trying to win games. But if Manchester City win the final on May 14 it presents a very different scenario.

It is unlikely that the fourth and final Champions League place will be decided by the penultimate weekend of the Premier League season, with Spurs currently three points behind City with a game in hand and both sides still to face each other, and as such Stoke's European fate will be unknown.

Just 24 hours after the FA Cup final, Liverpool and Tottenham meet at Anfield with Spurs desperate to play amongst Europe's elite for a second season. For Liverpool, it's a different story, as they sit four points behind fifth-placed Spurs - in the Europa League place reserved for the Premier League - having played two games more. Liverpool's chances of qualifying for the Europa League are very slim by that reckoning.

However, the new UEFA rule gives them a lifeline, because if Man City win the FA Cup and finish fifth then sixth place in the Premier League will earn a Europa League place.

If Liverpool want European football it could be in their interests to LOSE to Tottenham to help Harry Redknapp's side finish in the top four, thus pushing Man City into fifth. If Liverpool take points off Spurs it could cost the Reds a place in Europe.

And Man City and Stoke must play each other once again three days after the FA Cup final, on May 17, with the original Premier League fixture coincidentally falling on the same day as the final. If Stoke lose the FA Cup final they will have no incentive whatsoever to put the effort in at Eastlands. Once again, it will be in their interests to be beaten, and help Man City qualify for the Champions League which would give them a first European campaign since 1974-1975.

Spurs boss Harry Redknapp has demanded that the Man City-Stoke game be moved, though he did not make reference to his own side's game against Liverpool which is equally as significant. If the Premier League moves one game they will have to move both: the only realistic date available for both games is Wednesday, May 4.

There's a further complication on the final day of the season, if Bolton Wanderers are still very much in with a chance of taking that sixth place spot. Bolton are currently six points off Liverpool in sixth with a game in hand. They finish their campaign at home to Roberto Mancini's side and the Trotters could essentially have a mini European play-off, needing to win to finish sixth and knock Man City out of the top four.

Everton are also still in contention for sixth place but do not have a fixture which can influence matters.

It's a scenario which UEFA clearly had not considered. There are special circumstances in England this season, with the FA Cup not being the final game of the season. But in other leagues the domestic cup is not always the last match of the season.

Since the Europa League began this rule has not been tested in any of Europe's major leagues. In England in 2008-09, both FA Cup finalists, Everton and Chelsea, had already qualified via the league. And in 2009-10 winners Chelsea had qualified for the Champions League while runners-up Portsmouth were ineligible for European competition anyway due to their financial troubles (again Liverpool were the beneficiaries).

Also, since Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1997, on only one occasion, with Portsmouth's success over Cardiff in 2008, have the winners not qualified for Champions League football.

Some may argue that this is a one-off, a freak season that has never happened anywhere else since the Europa League began. But we have already seen how a UEFA loophole can cause problems when Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005. Rafael Benitez's side finished outside the top four in the Premier League and with England only able to put forward four teams for the following season Liverpool, as holders, would not have taken part.

UEFA had to hurriedly backtrack and place Liverpool in the first qualifying round, and change their rules to ensure the holders would always defend their crown at the expense of the fourth- placed side should the same thing happen again in Europe's top three leagues.

Liverpool could have another slice of luck and get into Europe through a perceived backdoor route again.

UEFA must look again and concede that uncertainly over Europa League qualification based upon Champions League qualification is nonsensical. It must revert to the natural system of giving the Cup runners-up European football if the winners have qualified for either UEFA competition, or remove the concession for the losers entirely. The latter would effectively mean that sixth place in the Premier League qualifies for the Europa League every season.

It's not immediately obviously what relevance the FA Cup winners having already qualified for the Champions League rather than the Europa League should have. Why should that directly impact upon the FA Cup runners-up?

It is claimed that the rule would make the Europa League stronger, with UEFA eager to have as many teams qualify by virtue of league position.

"With a new format you need a new identity," UEFA spokesman William Gaillard said at the time of the launch back in 2008. "The tournament is supposed to be for winners, not runners-up."

Whether finishing sixth in the league can be deemed better than being runners-up in the FA Cup is open to debate. The Carling Cup has, quite rightly, never offered a route into Europe for losing finalists, but the FA Cup surely still has the stature to command a place for both finalists.

• You can now follow me on Twitter: @dalejohnsonESPN


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