With European competition being revamped for 2009/10, the focus has been heavily on the dreadful looking Europa League (in which Everton or Villa would need to navigate 17 matches to win the competition, Fulham 19 as they have an extra qualifying round), but lost amongst the insanity has been the gross complication of Champions League qualification. It used to be so simple – there were a series of qualifying rounds, and teams arrived in those rounds dependent on their country’s European co-efficient, a measure of how successful each nation’s teams had been, collectively, over the previous five years. The more success you had, the less rounds you had to play to qualify.
The co-efficient process has not changed, and it is still a table topped by the Premiership, unsurprising given how it delivers a Champions League finalist every year. But whereas first or second in the Premiership used to put you in the group stage, and third and fourth into a qualifying match against fairly weak opposition (our sides are always seeded), the process is now overly complex. Time to decipher the madness.
The basics of the new format
- The 32 teams in the group stage used to be comprised of 16 automatic entrants, and 16 qualifiers. Now, there are 22 automatic entrants from a wider variety of nations (some of which might not even have played in the group stages last year) and only 10 that come through the qualifying rounds. UEFA’s theory is that big clubs always get through qualifiers at the expense of champions from smaller nations, so they’ve given more free passes to those that would normally exit in the qualifiers. Incidentally, the extra automatic entrants are the third placed sides in the top three countries (England, Spain, Italy), and the champions of countries ranked 10-12 (Scotland, Turkey and Ukraine – champions of the top 9 countries qualified automatically anyway).
- One of the 16 automatic spots always goes to the holders, which this season is Barcelona. Since they qualified through the league anyway, the holder’s reserved spot goes instead to the champions of the 13th placed country (the next in line) – Belgium.
- The remaining 10 spots are for everyone else to fight over, and this time, instead of piling everyone together, UEFA have put the remaining national champions (of countries ranked 14th and below) into one qualifying competition, and all other teams who didn’t win their league (such as Arsenal) into another. Each qualifying competition will supply 5 of the 10 qualifying places. Note – this is bad. In fact, this is very bad. Previously, all non-champions that found themselves in qualifying rounds had 16 places to fight over, and had the opportunity (as seeded teams) to play the champions of Luxembourg and cruise through. Now, they have to play other non-champions for only five spots, and since only the top 15 of 53 countries in Europe have sides other than their national champions entering the Champions League qualifiers (rather than the Europa League), this means they will all be drawn against each other in a series of tricky ties.
So who has qualified for the group stages already?
- The 16 sides that would have qualified under the old system still do, and they are: Man United, Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter, Juventus, Bordeaux, Marseille, Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich, Rubin Kazan (champions of Russia in 2008, apparently), CSKA Moscow, Unirea Urziceni (Romania), Porto, AZ, and, since Barcelona qualified as champions, Standard Liege.
- In addition, the 6 extra automatic places go to Chelsea, Sevilla, AC Milan, Rangers, Besiktas, and Dynamo Kiev.
How does qualification work for everyone else?
- 5 of the 10 remaining positions are filled by qualifiers from the ‘Champions Path’, a competition for the league winners of nations ranked 14th-53rd in Europe. This is the easy route, because quite frankly there are barely any decent teams in the list. By definition, if your country is ranked 14th or below in Europe, it is because you haven’t had any tangible success, and that’s probably because all your teams are rubbish.
- The full list of clubs in the Champions Path is: Olympiakos, Slavia Prague, Grasshopper Zurich, Levski Sofia, Stabaek, FC Copenhagen, Red Bull Salzburg, Partizan Belgrade, Maccabi Haifa, Kalmar FF, Sloven Bratislava, Wisla Krakow, Debrecen, Dinamo Zagreb, APOEL Nicosia, Maribor, Inter Turku, Ventspils, Zrinjski, Ekranas, Sheriff Tiraspol, Bohemians, Makedonija, FH Hafnarfjorour, WIT Georgia, BATE Borisov, Levadia, Baku, Tirana, Pyunik, Aktobe, Glentoran, Rhyl, EB, Dudelange, Hibernians (of Malta, not Scotland), Sant Julia, Mogren and Tre Fiori. Scared by any of those? Even heard of most of them? Thought not.
- The other five places are filled by qualifiers from the ‘Best Placed Path’, which has far less teams in it, but is much harder, both for the reason that only the top fifteen countries have such teams.
So, presumably, Arsenal are in the ‘Best Placed Path’ section. How does it work?
- There are 2 rounds to this particular competition:
- The first round comprises of 10 sides – the third placed side from the sixth ranked country (Russia) and the nine runners up from countries 7-15. This round does not include Arsenal.
- The five victors from the first round are then joined by five more teams – fourth placed sides in the top three nations (England, Spain and Italy) and third placed sides in nations 4 and 5 (France and Germany). The ties are drawn randomly (there is no seeding), with the 5 victors going through to the group stages. This is where Arsenal come in.
So who are the teams we could face?
- The 10 teams in the first round are: Dynamo Moscow, Dinamo Bucharest, Sporting Lisbon, Twente, Celtic, Sivasspor (Turkey), Shakhtar Donetsk, Anderlecht, Panathanaikos, and Sparta Prague. Clearly a much stronger set of teams than those in the Champions Path, and it includes UEFA Cup holders Shakhtar, and a potential Battle of Britain with Celtic.
- 5 of those teams will get through to a second round draw with Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Fiorentina, Lyon and Stuttgart. The draw is entirely random.
- Clearly this is a potential nightmare – Lyon always win the French league, but had a bad season and finished third. They would be difficult opponents, as would many others. There aren’t many easy teams there – the weakest will have gone by the time we come in.
What’s the verdict?
Our season could conceivably begin at Celtic Park, in Lyon, Madrid or Florence. Alternatively, we might be facing Jens Lehmann in Stuttgart.
There is no doubt that Platini has made it far more difficult for non-national champions to get into the Champions League, which in fairness is something he always said he would do, but I’m not sure many people realise just how tricky it could be, and won’t until the draw is made later in the summer. The knock on effect (and I’d say this whether Arsenal were automatically in or not) is that the group stages are going to be monumentally dull – this season it was obvious who would get through them, next year that will be the case even more.
Why? Put simply, the reason national champions from smaller countries don’t normally qualify for the group stages is because they aren’t good enough, and get stuffed in the qualifiers. This year, more of these teams are going straight into the group stages to get beaten down every other week. I realise that the point is to get the money distributed to a wider variety of clubs, but the reason the Champions League can offer such huge sums (of TV money, mainly) is because it is a tremendous spectacle. But a competition is only a spectacle if it is competitive. Does anyone really think Rubin Kazan, Unirea Urziceni or AZ have a chance of making it through? The romantics will say that it’s great to see the smaller teams in the group stages, but is it really? The tournament is great to watch when matches are evenly balanced, not when it is patently obvious who will qualify as soon as the draw is made (and that will be the case – seedings dictate that decent sides will be paired with no-hopers). Once again, it won’t get interesting until the knockout stages, once only the decent sides remain to have meaningful games against each other at last.
What is bizarre is this – it will be more difficult for teams to navigate the first qualifying round than the group stage that follows it, because the standard will actually drop once you get there thanks to the low quality automatic entrants. And it won’t help the Europa League either – if we draw Lyon in the qualifying round, the loser will drop into the group stages of the secondary competition and proceed to hammer everyone in it. The standard of the rest of the Europa League is so poor that you can be sure the final will be contested by two Champions League drop outs.
This is, of course, Michel Platini’s design, based on his election promise of supporting the smaller countries (of which there are more, hence his successful election in the first place). Unfortunately, he is contriving to devalue what is so enthralling about our continental competitions.
See you in Lyon in August.