Europa League preview: Liverpool and Sevilla eye route to Champions League spot

Europa League preview: Liverpool and Sevilla eye route to Champions League spot
Liverpool and Sevilla head into Thursday's Europa League semi-final first-leg ties eying a potential place in next year's Champions League.

With neither team looking likely to qualify through their domestic league positions, the Europa League offers them the best of opportunity of competing in Europe's top club tournament next season.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool tackle Villarreal in the last four, with the Spanish team presenting a big hurdle to their hopes of reaching the final.

Since losing their opening group match against Rapid Vienna, Villarreal have won eight and drawn three games and boast a perfect record at home.

Liverpool are undefeated in the competition, with five victories and seven draws from their 12 games.

Villarreal have reached the semi-final stage on two previous occasions, while Liverpool won the competition when it was named the UEFA Cup in 1973, 1976 and 2001.

The two teams reached the last four in contrasting circumstances. Villarreal enjoyed a comfortable 6-3 aggregate success against Sparta Prague, while Liverpool produced a stirring comeback to defeat Borussia Dortmund 5-4 after two epic encounters.

Villarreal are the only semi-finalists who have never won this competition, with Sevilla (2006, 2007, 2014, 2015) and Shakhtar Donetsk (2009) adding to Liverpool's three successes to make it eight victories between them.

Liverpool have been beaten just once in their previous 12 games in all competitions and will fancy their chances of overcoming a Villarreal team who have lost two of their last three matches.

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History also points to a Liverpool victory, with the Premier League team losing just nine of their previous 32 UEFA games against Spanish teams.

Villarreal are without a victory in their last 10 meetings with English opponents, having won their first three.

Sevilla face Ukraine's Shakhtar in the second semi-final, aiming to maintain their excellent recent record in the competition.

The Spanish side's victory over Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in 2015 was their second Europa League win in a row and the fourth time they have claimed the trophy.

Sevilla are unbeaten in five meetings with Ukrainian clubs and have won both their previous matches in Ukraine.

Shakhtar have a poor record against Spanish teams, winning just four out of 21 games.

Both teams entered the competition after being eliminated from the Champions League group stages.

Sevilla have won three, drawn one and lost two of their six games, while Shakhtar have won five and drawn one of their six matches.

Since reaching the semi-final, Sevilla have struggled for form, winning just once in three games. By contrast, Shakhtar have lost just twice in their previous 19 matches.

Despite this, Sevilla are strong favorites to earn a crack at a third successive Europa League title.

Their record in this competition speaks for itself, and Shakhtar's previous struggles against Spanish teams point towards a Sevilla victory, with Liverpool their most likely final opponents.