How Could the UEFA Champions League Format be Changed?

The UEFA Champions League is the pinnacle of the European game. It is the competition that all clubs competing on the continent are trying desperately to win perhaps more than any other. Reaching the summit of European football is a feat that only a small collection of teams have achieved. It’s what makes the tournament so compelling year after year.

However, there has been a lot of repetition when it comes to sides reaching the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League. Real Madrid won the competition three years on the bounce between 2016 and 2018, while they also beat rivals Atletico Madrid to claim the crown in 2014. Liverpool reached the final twice, winning the title for the sixth time in their 2-0 triumph over Tottenham at the Wanda Metropolitano.

It always seems to follow a pattern of Real, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich and at least two of the four English teams reaching the last eight. There is usually one side that comes along to break the trend – such as Ajax in the last campaign before their heart-breaking defeat at the hands of Spurs. Atalanta are the surprise package this season and are heavily favoured to progress through to the quarter-finals in the Champions League betting after beating Valencia 4-1. As a result, of the pattern of recent years, outfits that have found their pathway to the knockout rounds impeded are promoting a new form of qualification for the competition, which could have consequences across the continent.

FC Copenhagen Model

FC Copenhagen have dominated the Danish Superliga, winning the competition five times over the last ten years, including last season. However, they have not been able to transfer that success into the European arena. The Danish outfit do not receive an automatic place in the group stage and are forced to go through the early qualifying rounds to advance to the stage of the elite 32. This term they were beaten by Red Star Belgrade in the third qualifying round, missing out on the group stage.

It has been a familiar tale for Copenhagen, who have only reached the group stage three times in the last ten years and have progressed beyond into the round of 16 only once in the 2010-11 season, which resulted in a 2-0 loss to Chelsea. It’s no surprise that teams of Copenhagen’s ilk have become frustrated by the fact they have to go through the qualifying stage, while the top fours are granted free passage to the group stage.

Therefore, they have proposed a measure that all the 79 teams that can qualify for the UEFA Champions League are ranked based on their past performance in Europe. The top 20 sides will travel straight through to the group stage, while the others are whittled down in a series of elimination matches, with sides entering at different phases based on their coefficient. Celtic and Ajax are among the teams that have supported the idea, while it could also appeal to Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb, Young Boys and the other sides from the less popular European domestic leagues. Whether the big boys would agree is unlikely, to say the least, given the vast amount of money at stake for reaching the group stage and beyond.

Promotion or Relegation

Another way to improve the Champions League structure could be a promotion or relegation model between the Champions League and the Europa League. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli suggested that 24 of the 32 teams that played in the UEFA Champions League would remain in the competition from season to season, while the bottom eight teams would be relegated down to the Europa League and eight teams would earn promotion from the secondary tournament. It would not appeal to sides that have been surprising packages in their respective domestic leagues to either win the title – in the case of Leicester City in 2016 – or have finished in the top four to defy the odds – such as Atalanta in Serie A in 2019.

Rather than playing Champions League football, they would be forced to work their way through the Europa League before earning the right to take on the best in Europe. There’s enough continuity in the Champions League already without teams being guaranteed places in the competition. Agnelli has bold views, but they do not seem to cater to the teams on the outside of the elite looking in.

Without the prospect of earning Champions League football and the riches that go with it, there is little motivation for them to push themselves on and off the field other than the small hope of reaching the Europa League and the odds of beating relegation. It would not lend itself to a great deal of improvement from the clubs outside of the leading teams, which will have a knock-on effect on domestic competitions across Europe.

European Super League

This is perhaps the most talked-about model and the biggest threat to domestic leagues across the continent. Even the UEFA Champions League could be drastically altered should the elite teams in the competition breakaway and form their own division, which would follow the format of a domestic league rather than the weekday group and knockout matches we are accustomed to watching. There’s no doubt that a European Super League would be appealing. Pitting the best in Europe against each other on a weekly basis would result in high-quality matches that would interest every single television company and streaming service in the world.

The riches on offer would be staggering, but it would remove some of the most enticing matches in the sport. The futures of the Premier League, Serie A, LaLiga and Bundesliga would be uncertain, to say the least. It raises the question of what would happen regarding promotion and relegation to the European Super League? Would teams be able to transition between the European Super League and a domestic league?

There are far too many questions than answers regarding such a transformation. It would also rob spectators of some very entertaining games in the domestic arena. English sides have already distanced themselves from the prospect of the European Super League, and although the likes of Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain will continue to push as they dominate their respective leagues and maintain their status among the Champions League favourites. It will be interesting to see whether the current Champions League format holds for another 10 years or whether the pressure from the elite will pull the competition apart.