The draw for the lucrative group stages of the Champions League was made on Thursday 28th August. The 32 remaining clubs in the competition were allocated into eight groups of four teams. 74% percent of the respondents to a BBC survey thought that Manchester City had the toughest draw, while only 3.7% thought that Chelsea had the hardest draw. How did the Premier League champions end up in a much tougher group than the teams that finished in 3rd and 4th place? Was it purely by chance?
The unpredictability of a sporting contest depends not only on differences in the talent/motivation of the participants involved, but also on how the contest is designed and structured. The Champions League is an interesting case. The title of the competition would suggest that the participating clubs are all league champions from the 54 football associations spread across Europe. However, out of the 32 clubs which made it to the group stage, only 18 were actually the champions of their own domestic league.
22 teams automatically qualify for the group stages, while the other ten qualify via a knock-out stage of the competition. Of the 22 teams which gain automatic qualification only thirteen are league champions. The other nine places are allocated to teams which finished either 2nd or 3rd in their domestic leagues.
The inclusion of teams which did not win their domestic league occurs because UEFA allocates places in the Champions League by ranking the sporting performance of the 54 different football associations in Europe. This measure of performance, known as a Country’s Coefficient, is based on the results of the teams from each football association in both the Champions League and Europa League over the previous five years. If UEFA ranks a football association in one of the top three positions, then the teams that finish 1st , 2nd and 3rd in those leagues automatically qualify for the group stage of the Champions League. England is currently ranked in 2nd place behind Spain, which explains why Chelsea, which finished 3rd in the Premier League, obtained automatic qualification. The teams that finished 4th in these three top ranked leagues also gain entry to the final knock-out round of the competition. This is how Arsenal gained qualification for the group stage by narrowly defeating Besiktas from the Turkish League.
Teams from the lower ranked football associations have to win through more knock-out games in order to reach the lucrative group stage. For example the league champions from the bottom six countries (Faroe Islands, Wales, Armenia, Andorra, San Marino and Gibraltar) would have to win through four two-leg knock-out games. The league champions from Scotland would have to win through three as their football association is ranked in 24th place.
A draw takes place in order to allocate the remaining 32 teams to the leagues in the group stages. It is interesting how this allocation occurs because it is not a completely random process. UEFA ranks individual teams as well as countries. Real Madrid is currently ranked in 1st place while Port Talbot Town from the Welsh league is in 449th place. The top eight ranked teams still left in the competition are placed in pot 1, the 9th to 16th ranked clubs are placed in pot 2 and so on. One team from each pot is then drawn out at random and placed in a group. Therefore each group contains one club from pot 1, 1 club from pot 2, 1 club from pot 3 and 1 from pot 4.
The problem for Manchester City is that the seeding of each team is predominately determined by its performance in the Champions and Europa league over the previous five years. Once a team has made it to the group stages, its performance in its own domestic league has no impact on how it is seeded. This means that although Arsenal only finished 4th in the Premier League, it is placed in pot 1 for the draw because of its results in the Champions League over the previous five years. It therefore avoids the other top seeded clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Chelsea is also in pot 1, so was also more likely to get a favourable draw. Manchester City was seeded in pot 2 because it had only been in the Champions League for the last three years, so had not accumulated as many points as the teams who have been in the competition for longer.
Unfortunately for Manchester City, it was drawn in the same group as one of the strongest pot 1 teams – Bayern Munich. It was also unlucky to end up with one of the strongest teams in pot 4. Roma was runners up in the Italian league so was given an automatic place in the group stage. However it received a relatively low seeding as it is the first time it has been in the Champions league since 2010–11.
How much does the seeding matter? Since 1999–2000, when the group stage was expanded to 32 clubs, 86% of the top seeded teams have successfully qualified from the group stage into the last 16. Eleven of the last 16 winners were also from pot 1.
UEFA Rankings – Club coefficients 2014/15 UEFA (29/8/14)
UEFA Rankings – Country coefficients 2014/15 UEFA (29/8/14)
UEFA Rankings – Coefficients Overview UEFA (29/8/14)
Explained: The UEFA Champions League draw The Indian Empress (28/8/14)