• Jose Mourinho has taken Manchester United to the Europa League final (Getty Images Europe)
UEFA have hit a masterstroke by rewarding the winners of the Europa League with a spot in the group phase of the next Champions League.
By
Philip Micallef

23 May 2017 - 10:13 AM  UPDATED 23 May 2017 - 10:13 AM

In doing so the governing body has saved the competition from near irrelevance and given it a new lease of life.

The UEL had no chance of making more than a token impact on the continental game as long as it was forced to live in the shadow of its far more glamorous big brother.

The competition was treated merely as a consolation 'prize' by those clubs that were not strong enough to qualify for the elite tournament.

Lacazette brace in vain as Dolberg goal sends Ajax into final
Kasper Dolberg's exquisite goal proved vital as 10-man Ajax clung on to seal their place in the UEFA Europa League final despite a 3-1 defeat to Lyon, who saw their dramatic attempt at a comeback fall short.
Nervy Manchester United hold on to reach UEL final
Manchester United edged into the UEFA Europa League final with a 2-1 aggregate win over Celta Vigo as their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford saw late red cards for Eric Bailly and Facundo Roncaglia.

Not even the 'carrot' of eight third-placed teams in the UCL's group phase being invited to resume their season in the UEL seemed to raise the latter's profile.

Two seasons ago UEFA decided to add spice to the competition by giving its winners a spot at the big table.

Sevilla of Spain are the sole beneficiaries of UEFA's largesse so far.

In 2014-2015 they finished fifth in La Liga but qualified for the next season's UCL by beating the Ukraine's Dnipro 3-2 in the UEL final in Warsaw.

The Andalucians repeated their feat in 2015-2016 when they qualified for the next UCL by overcoming Liverpool 3-1 in Basle after finishing seventh in Spain and being knocked out in the group phase of that season's UCL.

This week's Stockholm showdown between Manchester United and Ajax gives Jose Mourinho's side an opportunity to play in the next UCL after they missed out on qualification by failing to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League.

United's intentions were made very clear by the Portuguese manager in the last few weeks when it became clear the only way Old Trafford would see Champions League football next season was through the back door.

Mourinho has openly stated that he is putting all his team's eggs in the UEL basket, such are the riches that await clubs for playing six group matches.

Ajax are in a slightly different situation.

They finished second behind Feyenoord in the Netherlands and will enter the next UCL at the final qualifying round but a win in Stockholm would put them straight into the last 32 of next season's big event without the hassle and risk of having to qualify.

This is because UCL finalists Real Madrid and Juventus, who meet in Cardiff on June 4 (AEST), have already qualified directly via their domestic results.

The opportunity of a spot in the UCL has encouraged many reluctant clubs to treat Europe's secondary competition more seriously and respectfully.

Indeed we have seen some thrilling ties in the last two or three seasons between teams that see the tournament as a gateway to glory rather than a trophy that is good to win but no big deal if they didn't.

With this in mind you can expect some fireworks when Mourinho's men face their younger opponents that are expertly managed by Peter Bosz.

United are slight favourites due to their big-game experience but they will sorely miss talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had season-ending knee surgery in America this month after suffering a cruciate ligament injury in the quarter-final win over Anderlecht.

The free-scoring Swede would have been hugely motivated to leave his mark on this final in his home country against the team that effectively launched his international career.

Ajax, whose squad average age is only 22.7 years, will rely on the skill of extrovert striker Bertrand Traore, whose two goals in the first leg against Olympique Lyon of France made all the difference in a tight 5-4 aggregate victory.

United also struggled to impose themselves on stubborn Celta Vigo of Spain and only got through 2-1 on aggregate.

It should be an open clash between two teams that are traditionally attack-minded and have a huge incentive to win.

It is hard to correctly predict the outcome.

One thing is for sure, though. UEFA are on a winner with their decision to dangle the Champions League carrot at the Europa League.