The Champions League knockout stages begin tonight (Tuesday), and this season will be more interesting than ever for supporters of rival English clubs who are not involved.
The potential to earn an extra qualification place will keep even the most bitter of rivals tracking the progress of their neighbours.
And, as those two teams fly the Premier League flag at UEFA’s top table, Brighton & Hove Albion, Liverpool and West Ham United will do the same in the Europa League. Aston Villa remain the only English side in the Europa Conference League.
Here is everything you need to know about the extra Champions League places and where they are heading ahead of the European knockout stages getting started this week.
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Why is there an extra Champions League place on offer?
The Champions League will expand at the beginning of next season from the current 32-team format to a 36-team one. The Athletic has explained the format change in great detail, which you can find below.
How the new Champions League format works
Of those extra four group-stage places, one will be given to the nation that finishes this season fifth in UEFA’s association club coefficient ranking (it’s currently France) and one will be earned by a lesser domestic champion from somewhere across the continent through the qualification rounds. The remaining two will go to the nations whose clubs perform best in this season’s European competitions.
These latter two are being called the ‘European Performance Spots’ by UEFA and could lead to the fifth-placed Premier League team making it directly into next season’s group stage.
So, which nations are leading the race for an extra Champions League place?
But only just.
Manchester United and Newcastle United’s fourth-placed finishes and premature eliminations from the Champions League have hurt England’s chances of a top-two spot, especially as Italy and Germany have three teams in the last 16 to England’s two.
Elsewhere, struggling Serie A winners Napoli are up against also-struggling La Liga counterparts Barcelona while Germany’s RB Leipzig face Spain’s 14-time European champions Real Madrid. England having all three of its Europa League representatives into that competition’s last 16 is a boost, particularly as they are all among the favourites to go the distance.
The storied history of Spanish sides in European competitions means they are a threat to earn an extra Champions League place, despite also losing two teams to the group stage. But Opta’s expected model — based on a combination of team rankings, each team’s historical and recent performances, and implied betting market odds — predicts they only have a slim chance of taking one of the extra places, with England strong favourites to top the coefficients ranking.
What do Premier League clubs need to do this season?
If only it was as easy as saying “Arsenal need to reach X stage, Brighton need to avoid being eliminated until Y and Villa need to do Z” but there are so many moving parts here, making any calculations incredibly complicated.
In essence, it is a case of needing English clubs generally to go as far as possible in their respective competitions while picking off representatives of their closest rival nations in the process.
Champions League holders Manchester City will fancy their chances of retaining their crown, while Arsenal are well placed to go beyond the last 16 for the first time in 14 years, having been drawn against Porto. It is important that they avoid each other for as long as possible if they both progress beyond this round.
The same is true of the three Premier League sides in the Europa League last 16; Liverpool are heavy favourites to lift the trophy at May’s final in Dublin, while Brighton and West Ham are among the sides most likely to pose a threat to Jurgen Klopp’s side.
The bookmakers are predicting an English clean sweep as Villa stand alone as Conference League favourites, and a deep run from Unai Emery’s side is much needed with their nearest competition likely to come from Italian side Fiorentina, last season’s beaten finalists, and Germans Eintracht Frankfurt.
Who stands to benefit from the potential extra Champions League place?
It may be doubly beneficial for Emery and his players to reach the latter stages of the Conference League as they are one of the sides who could finish fifth (they currently occupy that spot) in the Premier League this season.
But, after the first half of the season they have had, and despite losing two of their past three league games, they will be hoping to clinch a top-four place.
Tottenham will hope to disrupt their progress, though, especially after the recent returns of Micky van de Ven and James Maddison to full fitness. A decent run of Manchester United form could also see them make a move.
Here is Opta’s prediction for the fifth-place finisher:
Tottenham have a greater probability of finishing in fourth, at 49.3 per cent.
How can coefficient points be accrued?
As the above chart shows, there are lots of points left to be collected. With fewer teams left in Europe to win them, they are even more valuable and will have a greater difference to the overall ranking.
The coefficient that contributes to that ranking is worked out as an average rather than a total, in order to cancel out the advantage gained by nations with more representatives in Europe. The equation is simple: number of points accumulated by teams in a nation divided by number of competing teams.
So, as there were eight English teams competing in Europe at the start of the season, each English team’s points are divided by eight.
Here is how each country accumulates those points:
UCL = UEFA Champions League, UEL = UEFA Europa League, UECL = UEFA Europa Conference League
- 2 – All wins from group stage (UCL, UEL, UECL)
- 1 – All wins in qualifying and play-off matches (UCL, UEL, UECL)
- 1 – All draws from group stage (UCL, UEL, UECL)
- 0.5 – All draws in qualifying and play-off matches (UCL, UEL, UECL)
- 4 – Group stage bonus participation (UCL)
- 4 – Round of 16 bonus participation (UCL)
- 4 – Group winners (UEL)
- 2 – Group runners-up (UEL)
- 2 – Group winners (UECL)
- 1 – Group runners-up (UECL)
- 1 – Each round clubs reach from the round of 16 (UCL, UEL)
- 1 – Each round clubs reach from the semi-finals (UECL)
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)