Is the restructuring of the EUEFA group stage detrimental?

Uefa’s extensive overhaul of the group stage seems poised to introduce more confusion rather than enhancing competitiveness. As we prepare for the return of Champions League action this week, familiar matchups such as Milan versus Newcastle, Feyenoord versus Celtic, and Bayern versus Manchester United will grace stadiums and living rooms across Europe and beyond. However, it’s important to savor these moments because the group stage is about to undergo significant changes.

The New Format: Starting from the next season, the group stage will feature a single massive league table comprising 36 teams. Each team will play eight matches, which is two more than the current group stage but two less than the originally proposed ten matches, with four played at home and four away. Importantly, these matches will be against different opponents. After this somewhat unorthodox quarter-season, the top eight teams will advance directly to the last 16, while teams ranked between ninth and 24th in the table will enter a playoff round. Unless you’re a UEFA delegate or a chess enthusiast familiar with the “Swiss model,” this description might require a couple of readings to fully grasp. This new format, conceived by UEFA in response to the European Super League’s failed attempt in 2021, initially appeared as a whimsical idea that would eventually be tamed by common sense.

However, UEFA has persisted with its new vision, albeit with a few adjustments. Notably, the two spots reserved for teams based on historical performance have been discarded, with an additional place going to the two leagues boasting the best UEFA coefficient. It’s highly likely that one of these leagues will be the Premier League next season.

What Else Is Changing? The addition of two extra group games per team and the inclusion of an additional playoff round will increase the total number of games in the competition from the current 125 to 189. While the four seeding pots will remain, domestic league champions will no longer be guaranteed top-tier slots, as UEFA reverts to relying on the coefficient system.

One change that might find favor with some is the elimination of the Europa League safety net for teams that fail to progress. Teams finishing 25th or lower, or those exiting in the knockout stages, will exit European competition altogether. Moreover, starting from the next season, the Europa and Conference Leagues will also adopt the same format as the Champions League.

UEFA would argue that by having each team face two opponents from each pot, there will be more elite-level matchups in the early stages of the Champions League. Additionally, the seeded knockout draw will incentivize strong performance in the initial “league stage” by offering an easier path to the final. This is intended to make every game meaningful.

Will Every Game Truly Matter? Likely not. Only 12 out of the 36 teams will be eliminated at the end of the “league stage,” leaving two-thirds to progress (compared to the current 50%). While the seeded knockout draw and the top eight’s direct passage to the last 16 might inject some urgency, it doesn’t necessarily herald a bold new era of competition.

Pot 1 teams will now square off in the new group stage, which may appeal to casual viewers craving more matches between top European sides. However, given that teams will primarily aim to secure a spot within the top 24, which can potentially be achieved with just two or three wins, it raises questions about the level of investment in these early encounters.

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has claimed that the new format will “improve competitive balance and generate solid revenues.” With an expanded fixture list and more high-profile matches, it’s easier to see how the latter statement holds true.

Is the Current System Any Better? The group stage, while a part of modern football, can be characterized as dull and repetitive, with limited jeopardy for the top teams. The 32-team, eight-group format was introduced in 1999-2000, with a second group stage abandoned in 2003-04.

Before 2015-16, when winners of the top-ranked leagues were placed in Pot 1, only four teams from that pot had finished at the bottom of their group. Since then, six more teams have joined them, with Benfica and Monaco in 2017-18 being the only top-tier duo to exit Europe early in the same season.

Since 2003-04, only 19 out of the 160 teams in Pot 1 have failed to reach the Champions League knockout stages. There is certainly room for improvement, but rebalancing the competition entails increasing the risk factor for Europe’s elite. UEFA is introducing more games and stricter seedings, which diminishes the impact of a “bad draw” and may make outcomes even more predictable.

Other Factors to Consider: Player welfare is a crucial concern. The two extra matches will extend the group stages into January, and the new format will be followed by FIFA’s expanded 32-team Club World Cup in the summer of 2025. These additional fixtures will also affect domestic cup competitions and international football.

Additionally, there’s the apprehension of what comes next. Who will prevent UEFA from further altering the format? If lower-ranked teams fail to make an impression, could the discussion about “legacy places” resurface? While Uefa has currently ruled out the inclusion of Saudi teams, it wouldn’t be unthinkable in this new, intricate format.

These are questions for another day. For now, let’s settle in and enjoy the last glimpse of the Champions League we’ve known, with all its repetition and lack of competitiveness, because it might just be better than what lies ahead.

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