Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Guest Post: Eladio looks ahead to next season's Champions League

The rules, they are a-changing. With CL qualification and organization undergoing a summer reshuffle, it's going to take a genius to figure it all out. Well, we couldn't get one of those, but we could secure longtime UF commenter Eladio to do all the heavy lifting.

The first two-thirds of the 2008-09 EPL (Suck it, Barclays) season had many storylines, but the one that kept my interest for most of the time was the battle for 4th place between Aston Villa and Arsenal. (By the way, did anyone see this video of Mr. Tom Hanks on Jonathon Ross’s show, explaining why he’s an Aston Villa supporter? Also – I think he said “723 crack footballers”, not “crap footballers”. Anyway, it remains to be seen if Keith loves him or not. Also, his impersonation of fans who tell him “Forrest Gump” is their favorite movie – hilarious.)

Once Villa went into their March swoon and Arsenal starting showing signs of a backline (albeit against 723 crap footballers), the Gunners locked up 4th place and everyone seemed content for a month or so.

But then, in an effort to boost ratings for meaningless, late-season matches, TV pundits started bringing up the battle for 3rd place between Arsenal and Chelsea, mentioning over and over again that the new UEFA Champions League qualifying rules are changing drastically for 2009-10, and that 4th place will no longer be the cakewalk it has been for non-automatic qualifiers in years past. I paid little attention to the white noise, as I’ve been conditioned year after year to care only about 4th place.

But now that the 3rd place is out of reach and the silly season is almost upon us, I thought I’d look into these new UEFA rules and see what the difference between 3rd and 4th really means.

Before looking in to 2009-10, I wanted to revisit the old rules for getting in to the CL. Up to last year, places 3rd and 4th in England went directly into the 3rd (and last) round of Qualifying for the CL. This qualifying round included all teams that went through the 1st 2 qualifying rounds of the CL and those who got the free bye to the 3rd. However, once all teams got the 3rd qualifying round, UEFA seeded those teams. From a large document on the UEFA website entitled “Regulations of the UEFA Champions League 2008/09”, section 8.0.1, they state:

The UEFA administration seeds clubs for the qualifying rounds and the group stage in the UEFA Champions League, in accordance with the club coefficient rankings established at the beginning of the season and with the principles set by the Club Competitions Committee. If, for any unforeseen reason, any of the participants in such rounds are not known at the time of the draw, the coefficient of the club with the higher coefficient of the twoclubs involved in an undecided tie will be used for the purposes of the draw.
Because of this seeding, the 3rd and 4th placed teams in England (and the other major leagues) were not in huge danger of facing a tough squad.

In August 2008, 3rd place Arsenal faced Twente Enschede, the 4th place club from the Eredivisie, and 4th place Liverpool faced Standard Liege, the Champions from the Belgian First Division. Because of the seeding neither team was in danger of facing other teams in the 3rd round of Qualifying -- such as Atletico Madrid, Juventus, or Barcelona – so they had an easy go of it. (Oh right – Liverpool needed a Kuyt goal in the 118th minute of the 2nd leg to get through... oops.)

Nevertheless, the 3rd and 4th place teams from England were not in tough straits in getting to the group stages.

With the 2009-10 CL season, the rules of qualification have changed. (The UEFA website has a good outline of who gets in by each country’s FA association here)

First off, there are 22 automatic qualifiers to the group stages: 21 as outlined on the page above, plus the Title Holders. Now that it’s a foregone conclusion (no, not David Brent’s band) that both ManUre and Barca are going to qualify by winning their respective leagues, I believe this means there will be another automatic group qualifier from somewhere else.

(I can’t find any information on the UEFA site as to who would move in to the group stages, but in 08-09, they had the following “provisional” comment: Scottish champions Celtic also began in the group stage as United were already qualified through after winning the English title, hence PFC Levski Sofia moved forward to the third qualifying round and Wisla Kraków and MTK Budapest were excused the initial stage.

So based on this, I’d guess that the next country down the list that doesn’t get automatically into the group stage (which happens to be Belgium) will now get an automatic entry to the group stages. But that’s just a guess.)

The other 10 qualifiers to the group stage come through preliminary qualifying this summer, but those 10 are split into 2 groups: the “Champions Path” and the “Best-Placed Path”. Each “path” (which sounds like the Cult of Platini – “Follow the path and eternal enlightenment will be revealed – but not if you speak English”) will contribute 5 teams each.

Here are the qualifying rules for each “path”, from the UEFA website:

• Champions Path
The first qualifying round comprises three two-legged ties involving the champions of the countries ranked 48 to 53 in UEFA competition. The winners of those ties progress to the second qualifying round where they are joined by the champions of the 31 countries ranked 16 to 47 (except Liechtenstein). The victorious sides from those 17 ties join the champions from the associations ranked 13 to 15 in the third qualifying round, with the winners of those ten pairings reaching the play-off round. These five play-off ties will take place on a home-and-away basis with the winners qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

• Best-placed path
The third-placed side from the sixth-ranked member association, plus the runners-up from the associations ranked 7 to 15, start the competition in the third qualifying round. The winners of these five ties progress to the play-off round, where they are joined by the fourth-placed sides from the associations ranked 1 to 3 and the third-placed teams from the associations ranked 4 and 5. The victorious teams from the five play-off ties qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage.

What this means is that those in the Champions Path will face each other, and those in the Best-Placed Path will face each other, but never the twain shall meet (until the group stages). Arsenal will obviously be in the Best-Placed Path, and thus, I wanted to see what this might look like. Based on the criteria above, it will/could look something like this below.

(NOTE: All teams I included are based on CURRENT league standings, though some were from tables in another language that I couldn’t understand, so no guarantee these are correct.)

Best Placed Path, Third Qualifying round includes these 10 teams:
#6, 3rd place: Dinamo Moscow (Since the Russian League ended in November, Dinamo Moscow are confirmed here.)
#7-Romania, runner up: Unirea Urziceni
#8-Portugal, runner up: Sporting Lisbon
#9-Netherlands, runner up: Twente Enschede (McClaren alert!)
#10-Scotland, runner up: Celtic
#11-Turkey, runner up: Sivasspor
#12-Ukraine, runner up: Shakhtar Donestk
#13-Belgium, runner up: Standard Liege
#14-Greece, runner up: PAOK Salonika
#15-Czech Republic, runner up: Sparta Prague

These 10 will participate in five, 2-legged ties. These 5 winners will then join the next 5 qualifiers of the Best-Placed Path group, and these 10 go to the “Play-off Round”, with another set of 2-legged ties. These next 5 qualifiers would be:

#1-England, 4th place: Arsenal (Confirmed here.)
#2-Spain, 4th place: Valencia
#3-Italy, 4th place: Fiorentina
#4-France, 3rd place: Lyon
#5-Germany, 3rd place: Hertha Berlin

So let’s look to see how many “Danger” teams would there be that Arsenal might have to face. Of the first group of 10, I’d rate 3 of them as “Danger”: Portugal-2nd; Scotland-2nd; Greece-2nd. I would also say that ALL the other 4 clubs that advance directly to the playoff round would be classified as “Danger” as well. (One could argue about Fiorentina or Berlin; however, I would say that there’s just as good of a chance that a team like Juventus or Munich could wind up in those spots as well.)

Then I would use an assumption that only 2 of the 3 “Danger” teams from the 3rd Round make it through to the Play-off Round. (I tried to figure out the % chance that 2 of the 3 would play each other, which would automatically knock off 1 team, and then decided that even if all 3 had ties against weaker teams, there’s a chance that at least 1 of those 3 could lose – and I came up with a figure of 2.4 teams to advance, which is ridiculous as 2/5 of a team would lose anywhere around the world – I mean, Norwich has proven that this year -- so I went with two.) This means that Arsenal would be in the Play-off Round pool with 9 other clubs – 6 of whom would be classified as “Danger”. (And yes, I know the “Danger” classification makes it sound like I’m on Bush’s Homeland Security Team, but bear with me -- I’m almost done.)

All this means that Arsenal has around a 67% chance of being drawn against a tough opponent in the final play-off round for CL group stage qualification, whereas in previous years I’d say that the chance of being drawn against a tough opponent was less than 20% -- and even that might be generous.

I would wager that these new UEFA rules make the difference between finishing 3rd and 4th FAR GREATER than the difference between finishing 2nd and 3rd in past years. In fact, just look at the quality of teams that may have to play each other in late August this year: Arsenal; Valencia/Atletico Madrid; Juventus/Fiorentina; Bayern Munich/Hertha Berlin/Stuttgart; Lyon/PSG; Celtic/Rangers; Sporting Lisbon.

Considering that the vast majority of CL revenue is based on making the GROUP stages, I think the accepted wisdom that finishing 4th is the most important spot in the League Table (after winning the league and avoiding relegation, obviously) is going to have to be changed to finishing 3rd. It isn’t an easy waltz into the group stages for the 4th place club in the EPL anymore – and in some years could easily mean a contest against a side such as Inter Milan or Real Madrid.

And because these games take place in August (the playoff rounds will be completed by 8/26/09), there would still be time before the transfer window closes for a player to request/demand a transfer to another team that did make the CL group stages. (Although, this would require the player NOT to have played in the Play-off Round; otherwise they’d be cup-tied. At least, I believe so.)

Thinking back to Arsenal, might someone like Fabregas or van Persie request NOT to play in the Play-off Round (and in years past Wenger has definitely played a lesser squad in these prelim games, albeit against weaker competition) in case Arsenal is knocked out prior to the Group Stages, thus leaving them open to a transfer to a team that did qualify? Just more things to worry about during the off-season.

Platini: dreaming of paths that could potentially screw the English

Quickly, I also wanted to touch on the “Champions Path”, as I think this change also impacts the group stages. The Champions Path includes the winners of the leagues that are ranked #13 thru 53 (San Marino – GET IN!), and they all enter the competition at various stages based on their UEFA ranking. By separating out these clubs from the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place finishers from the better country’s leagues, UEFA is ensuring that at least 5 clubs from countries with weak football leagues will be in the group stages.

Let’s just look at teams ranked 13-20 to get an idea of who they might be. (Again, based on the most recent standings, and no guarantee these are correct.)
13 – Belgium. Anderlecht
14 – Greece. Olympiacos
15 – Czech Republic. Slavia Prague
16 – Switzerland. FC Zurich
17 – Bulgaria. CSKA Sofia
18 – Norway. Rosenborg
19 – Denmark. FC Copenhagen
20 – Austria. SV Red Bull Salzburg

Now I don’t want to slag off any country’s league champions. Good on you for doing the best you could do in the league you happen to be in. But is there anyone out there who WOULDN’T rather play any of these teams instead of any of the teams I outlined above in the Best-Placed Path? I didn’t think so.

I’m sure Platini would spin these changes to say that they’re trying to open up the competition to a wider array of countries. This will definitely do that, but it’s also going to give the Champions & Runners-up of the top country’s leagues a much easier chance of advancing to the knock-out stages. They’re basically making the gap between the top and bottom of the groups wider. And in my opinion, these new rules will make the group stages less competitive, and a lot more boring (if that's even possible).

Finally, one other change to the CL schedule for 2009-10 that I found interesting.

The 1st Knockout round (after the Group Stages) will be split over 4 weeks instead of 2. In years past, these 8 ties would be played over 2 weeks, meaning that 4 games would be played on a Tuesday, and 4 on a Wednesday, and then do it again the next or 2 weeks later. Because only 1 game could be shown live, 3 games would either not be shown, or shown on tape delay. In the 2009-10 1st Knockout round, 1st leg matches will be played Feb 16, 17, 23, and 24, and the 2nd legs will be March 9, 10, 16 and 17.

This means that only 2 games will be played a day, and that 4 games will be televised live instead of just 2 – and they just doubled their TV revenue. (Although this might also mean a lot of Twente/Bordeaux and Besiktas/Rosenborg matches as well. You’ve been warned.)

So there you have it. I have no doubt that there at least 1 of the teams from the top 5 leagues in Europe who will be out of the Champions League before the group stages in the coming year, and possibly as many as 3. And then everyone will realize what I’ve come to see: 3rd place is the new 4th.


Anonymous said...

Cliff Notes version:

Platini, much like Mugatu, is a dick.

That said, I find these changes more than fair, even though I recognize the argument that this could water down the competition (if only slightly).

The NY Kid said...

outstanding job, Eladio!

It took us about 5 minutes over e-mail to realize that you had already done more work than we would have.

See? You too can write a guest post - just pick something complex that we are too lazy to figure out ourselves!

Eladio said...

Amazing what work one can get done at work when one doesn't work at work.

I should have mentioned -- Liechtenstein is left out of the UEFA placements as their club teams play in the Swiss league. Of course, that's probably just stating the obvious for everyone here.

The Fan's Attic said...

my head hurts. seems way too complex. they should just have a 64 team knockout style tournament.

JT said...

The irony is that none of the weird shit they do pre-group stage seems to make any difference whatsoever, as I can't remember the last time all 4 English teams didn't make it to the group. Of course, LFC came mighty close this season, but even so. Flash in the pan, for all intents and purposes.

Sarah said...

Free love on the freelove freeway, the love is free and the freeway is long...

Oh what? This post was about football?

In all seriousness, I don't think the changes are all bad. Of course, I may very well be singing a different tune when Arsenal are knocked out of the competition in August by David Villa and Valencia because Wenger didn't fix our defensive problems in the offseason.

Mike Georger said...

Considering how bad Liverpool played against Maccabi, Toulousse, and Liege in the past three years, I am quite glad they are not in Arsenal's shoes.

I think the tie tends to be a bit more difficult because it's at the beginning of the season, and lord knows everyone will be dealing with the international breaks which are inexplicably scheduled for the first two months of the EPL season rather than the THREE months of fucking offseason.

JT said...

dude, we beat Toulouse 5-0 on aggregate!

I agree with you re: Standard Liege though.

Mike Georger said...

I seem to remember the first leg being an incredibly nervy 1-0 win with a winner from Voronin.

Either way, one less thing to worry about.

Keith said...

Given that I became a supporter by turning on a random United/Villa match on FSC when I first moved to NYC and saying to myself, "Well, I CAN'T root for Man U," sure, we'll add Mr. Hanks to our ragtag band of supporters.