Football Betting

Ben Gray: Farewell to the Champions League group stages


In case you weren’t aware, this week is the last ever set of Champions League group stage fixtures. EVER!

From next season, UEFA will introduce the “Swiss-system” league phase, in which 36 teams will all feature in one enormous league table, after playing eight different teams, four at home and four away.

We haven’t even scratched the surface with this explainer, the words seeding and coefficient are yet to be used for starters, and it’s already complicated, which is the crux of the issue with this new format.

It’s confusing... and no one likes confusing things.

The much-maligned group stages, first introduced in 1991, are simple and easy to follow, and we will not appreciate them until they’re gone.

The general perception is that the Champions League group stages are ‘boring’ and ‘predictable’ and in many respects these claims are true.

The format is designed to get the big teams through. Since 2018/19:

  • 90% of pot 1 teams have reached the knockout phase.
  • 60% of pot 2 teams have reached the knockout phase.
  • 40% of pot 3 teams have reached the knockout phase.
  • 10% of pot 4 teams have reached the knockout phase.

The competition has also become almost impossible for clubs from outside Europe’s ‘big five′ leagues to reach the knockout phase, with only 15 such teams achieving this since 2011/12.

  • Primeira Liga: Porto (X7), Benfica (X3) & Sporting.
  • Eredivisie: Ajax (X2) & PSV (X2).
  • Jupiler Pro League: Club Brugge & Gent.
  • Austrian Bundesliga: RB Salzburg.
  • Swiss Super League: FC Basel (X3).
  • Süper Lig: Beşiktaş & Galatasaray (X2).
  • Ukrainian Premier League: Shakhtar Donetsk (X3) & Dynamo Kyiv.
  • Russian Premier League: Zenit Saint Petersburg (X2).
  • Greek Super League: Olympiacos.
  • Scottish Premiership: Celtic.

This means, in the last 12 seasons, just 16.7% of teams featuring in the Champions League round of 16 have come from outside the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga or Ligue 1.

If Portugal’s big two, Porto and Benfica, are excluded from this equation, the figure plummets to 11.5%.

Real Madrid (28 seasons), Manchester City (11 seasons), Paris Saint-Germain (12 seasons), Bayern Munich (16 seasons) and many more always make light work of the group stages, getting through in each of the last number of years indicated, but that’s exactly how the establishment want it to remain.

Will the new Champions League format make the competition more competitive?

The answer is no. No it won’t.

Under the new Champions League format, more clubs from big leagues will qualify, with an extra spot for Ligue 1, while the two league’s with the highest one-year coefficient will get a bonus spot, with the Premier League on course to get one, while Serie A or the Bundesliga will be the likely recipient of the other.

Also, clubs will now play eight ‘league phase’ fixtures, up from six, increasing the margin for error for the juggernauts.

The two extra matches will be shoe-horned into the calendar in January, causing chaos in colder countries, for Germany’s Winterpause and the Premier League’s jam-packed festive fixtures.

Also, of the 36 teams in the league phase, the top 24 all go through to an expanded knockout stages, meaning 144 matches will be played to eliminate 12 teams.

It’s pretty clear that this new Champions League format, coming into effect next season, will be very unpopular, due to it’s complicated, difficult to follow format and the increase in meaningless dead-rubbers.

No one, including possibly UEFA themsleves, knows how the draw is going to work!

That’s something to look forward to next August.

So, as we bid the old group phase format adieu, enjoy the last-ever round of group games this week, because the Champions League will never be the same again.

The current format is far from a utopia, but it’s vastly superior to the dystopia that awaits in 2024.

Ben Gray

Ben Gray

Arsenal fan – follow them over land and sea (and Leicester); sofa Celtic supporter; a bit of a football '"encyclopedia".