Champions League is far from perfect but what is coming next looks worse | Champions League

new balance


“Ce sont les meilleures équipes …” This week, a familiar choral refrain returns to stadiums, bars and living rooms across Europe and beyond. The opening Champions League ‘match day’ offers plenty of intriguing games and historic names – Milan v Newcastle, Feyenoord v Celtic, Bayern v Manchester United. Ideologies collide as Real Madrid host Union Berlin; eras entwine as Manchester City face Red Star Belgrade. It’s a feast of football to be savoured – not least because the group stage is about to change dramatically …

The new format

From next season, the group stage will feature 36 teams placed in one giant league table. Every team will play eight matches (two more than the current group stage but two less than the original plans which wanted 10), four home and four away – but all against different opponents. After this peculiar quarter-campaign, the top eight teams go straight to the last 16. Teams placed between ninth and 24th in the table, meanwhile, move on to a playoff round.

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Chances are that, unless you’re a Uefa delegate or a chess enthusiast familiar with “the Swiss model”, that paragraph will have taken a couple of reads. The new format, cooked up by Uefa after the European Super League’s failed land-grab in 2021, felt like a wacky scheme that would eventually be reined in by common sense.

Not so. Uefa has pressed on with its new vision – albeit with a few adjustments. One key change is that the two places reserved based on teams’ historical performance have been scrapped; instead, an extra place will go to the two leagues with the best Uefa coefficient. In all likelihood, one of those will be the Premier League next season.

What else is changing?

The extra two group games per team and the additional playoff round mean the competition will bloat to 189 games, from the current 125. The four seeding pots will remain, but domestic league winners will lose the right to a top-tier slot as Uefa reverts to relying on the coefficient system.

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In a tweak that may prove more popular, the trapdoor to the Europa League for teams that fail to progress will be closed. Teams that finish 25th or lower, or go out in the knockout stages, will be out of Europe altogether. The Europa and Conference Leagues, meanwhile, will also adopt the same format from next season.

Frenkie de Jong eludes Bruno Fernandes in last year’s Europa League knockout round playoff. Under the new system Barcelona would not have dropped into the Europa League after Champions League elimination.
Frenkie de Jong eludes Bruno Fernandes in last year’s Europa League knockout round playoff. Under the new system Barcelona would not have dropped into the Europa League after Champions League elimination. Photograph: Oscar J Barroso/Shutterstock

Uefa would also argue that with each team playing two sides from each pot, there will be more elite-level matchups in the Champions League’s early stages. In addition, the knockout draw will be seeded so that performance in the initial “league stage” will earn an easier path towards the final. That way, every game matters.

So will every game matter?

Probably not. Only 12 of the 36 teams will go out at the end of the “league stage” – so two thirds will go through (compared to 50% currently). The seeded knockout draw, and the bye to the last 16 earned by the top eight, will add some urgency – but big teams totting up their goal difference does not sound like a bold new era of competition.

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Pot 1 teams will now face each other in the new group stage, and the idea of more games between the top European sides might appeal to the casual viewer. But with teams fighting only to finish inside the top 24 – potentially possible with just two or three wins – how much will they invest in these early exchanges?

The Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, has said the new format will “improve competitive balance and generate solid revenues”. With an expanded fixture list and more high-profile matches, it is easier to see how the latter statement is true.

Is the current system any better?

It may be part of the modern football landscape, but the group stage can be dull and repetitive, with little real jeopardy for the biggest teams. The 32-team, eight-group setup first appeared in 1999-2000, with an attritional second group stage dropped in 2003-04.

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Before 2015-16, when winners of the top-ranked leagues were allocated a space in Pot 1, only four teams from that pot – Lazio, Deportivo, Manchester United and Benfica – finished bottom of their group. Since 2015-16, a further six teams have done so (four of them Russian champions). Benfica and Monaco in 2017-18 are the only top-tier duo to go out of Europe early in the same season.

Since 2003-04, just 19 of the 160 teams in Pot 1 have failed to reach the Champions League knockout stages. There is certainly room for improvement, but redressing that competitive balance is only possible by increasing the risk factor for Europe’s elite. Uefa is bringing in more games and stricter seedings, diminishing the impact of a “bad draw” and somehow making things even more predictable.

Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Ji-sung Park trudge off the pitch having been eliminated from the Champions League after losing to Benfica in the group stage in 2005.
Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Park Ji-sung trudge off the pitch and out of the Champions League after losing to Benfica in the group stage in 2005. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

What other factors are at play?

Firstly, there is the issue of player welfare. The two extra matches will push the group stages into January, and the new format will be followed by Fifa’s expanded 32-team Club World Cup in the summer of 2025. The additional fixtures will also have a knock-on effect on domestic cup competitions and international football.

Beyond that, there is the fear of what comes next. Who will stop Uefa moving the goalposts further? If lower-ranked teams fail to make an impression, will the “legacy places” discussion return? Uefa has closed the door on Saudi teams joining for now, but would it seem such a seismic shock in a brand new, confusing format?

These are questions for another day. For now, settle in and enjoy one last blast of the Champions League we know and tolerate; repetitive, uncompetitive but surely better than what lies ahead.

new balance



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