After two and a half months of qualifying play, we’ve finally reached the Group Stage of the UEFA Champions League! But before matches kick off on 18 September, the qualifiers had to be drawn into their respective groups.
Six qualifiers – who joined at various stages of the qualification depending on the UEFA coefficient of their association – have to fight through five qualifying rounds. Only one club that entered in the first qualification round – Red Star Belgrade – made it through to the Group Stage. They are joined by Ajax (second qualification round), AEK Athens & Benfica (third qualifying round), and Young Boys and PSV Eindhoven (Play-off round).
The 26 teams that are placed directly into the Champions League at the Group Stage are pulled from the following associations:
- 11 champions from associations 1–11
- 6 runners-up from associations 1–6
- 5 third-placed teams from associations 1–5
- 4 fourth-placed teams from associations 1–4
This reinforces why it is important for teams to perform well in the European tournaments. For example, the 11th place association – the Czech Republic – had a UEFA coefficient of 33.175, while the 12th place association – Switzerland – was 32.075. Had Switzerland’s clubs performed better at last year’s tournaments, their champion – in this case the aforementioned Young Boys – could have avoided the play-off round. It didn’t matter this year, as Young Boys came through unscathed, but they would have probably preferred to avoid the extra round.
Fifteen associations are represented in the Group Stage, and no association has more than four clubs. As mentioned in my primer, the top four associations – Spain, Germany, England, and France – each place their top four finishers from last season’s league play in the tournament.*
*Note: The defending Champions League winner and Europa League winners are granted placement at the Group Stage as well, and since both of last season’s winners – Real Madrid (Champions) and Atlético Madrid (Europa) qualified through league play as well, it simply shifts where some of the lower ranked associations join the tournament.
The eight drawn groups ended up looking like this:
Defending champion Real Madrid was given a bit of a break in their draw, at least if you consider the UEFA coefficient of the clubs in its group. The average coefficient for the group is 76, though this is no doubt boosted by Real Madrid’s 162.00, which is 20 points higher than the other three teams COMBINED. This could be one of the reasons why sites like FiveThirtyEight have them as overwhelming favorites to advance to the Round of 16 (and beyond).
Besides Real Madrid, I’d say the next easiest route for top teams is going to be the one faced by Barcelona in Group B. Though they are grouped with Tottenham Hotspur from England, they are still well ahead of the rest of their group when it comes to UEFA coefficient – which, again, measures how well teams have performed over the past five years in UEFA competitions – leading the Spurs by 65 points, PSV Eindhoven by 96, and Internazionale by 116 points. That is the largest gap between the first and third team in a group (behind the 117 point gap between Real Madrid and CSKA Moscow).
Using similar factors, the “Group of Death” in this year’s tournament might be a toss-up between Group C and Group F, if only because of how close the top three teams are to the respective UEFA coefficient average. Group F is the only group in the tournament with three teams above their group’s average (59.196), with Manchester City (82.0), Shakhtar Donetsk (81.0) and Lyon (59.5). Group C, which has a higher overall average (64.938), barely misses the cut because its third team Liverpool is barely below the average (62.0). Group F also has the “stronger” 4th team, with 1899 Hoffenheim ranking ahead of qualifier Red Star Belgrade.
Though the favorites from each group are currently the highest ranked clubs, things can change once the matches get started. Is your favorite team in the draw? Do you like their chances of making it through to the Round of 16? Or will they be competing for third and a spot in Europa League? Let us know who you’re rooting for and if you think they got a favorable draw!
Until next time…
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