It is not rare to see occasional changes in the format of the UEFA Champions League.
Since it's inception in 1955, the structure of the tournament has been altered on multiple occasions for different reasons; whether it be the promotion of more countries to feature in the competition, reduce the number of games in the tournament or other reasons.
In 2015/2016, another minor change was installed in the seeding process for the group stages. The change is so subtle that most viewers could overlook it. However, it could have severe implications for certain teams, mainly bigger teams.
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The main difference between the current and the previous Champions League group stage format is the manner in which the top seeds are decided, prior to the draw for the group stages.
Until the 2014/2015 season, all four seeds during the draw for the group stage were decided using club coefficient rankings, established at the beginning of each season.
This method takes into consideration the respective association's ranking during the past five European seasons, be it in the Champions League or in the Europa League, as well as the club's individual ranking during the same period.
The combined coefficient is used to place each club in Europe into the appropriate seeds. Evidently, this is bound to help bigger teams who tend to perform better on the European stage on a regular basis.
After the 32 teams for the competition have been decided, the teams are split into four groups of eight teams each, just like the older format, where the first group comprises the top seeded teams.
Here is the difference. The top seed comprises the champions of the top seven leagues across Europe and the current Champions League winner. In the case where the title holder is part of one of the top seven leagues, the winner of the eighth ranked league is included as one of the top seeds.
Each of these teams are then placed in the eight separate Champions League groups as the top ranked sides.
The rest of the seeds are distributed into the eight groups based on club coefficient rankings, in the same manner as the previous format.
Problems with the current format
So why is the new format concerning for the so-called bigger teams as well as the competitiveness of the prestigious tournament?
The current process of determining the top seeds for the group stages does not take into account the club's recent history in European competitions or the quality of the team, as described earlier.
This essentially guarantees teams from eight different countries in the top seed, something that was unheard of in previous seasons.
Let's take for example the 2015/2016 season. Spain, England, Germany and Italy were the top ranked associations going into the draw for the group stages, followed by Portugal, France, Russia and the Netherlands, represented by Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Benfica, Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg and PSV Eindhoven respectively.
Based solely on club ranking coefficients, only Chelsea, Bayern, Barcelona and Benfica would be in the top seeds list, joined by Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Porto and Arsenal, teams that are perennial high achievers in Europe and that have a higher chance of making it far in the competition.
In fact, that was exactly the situation during the 2014/2015 Champions League draw.
PSV, with a coefficient of around 58 would barely make it to the third seed, whereas PSG, Zenit and even European giants Juventus would just scrape into the second seed group.
The presence of low coefficient teams in the top seed makes stronger teams from lower seeds susceptible to facing stronger top seeds such as Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Juventus if placed in the same group, which further creates an opportunity for a potentially big team to be eliminated in the group stage.
Similarly, weaker teams could likely end up in the same group as other not so strong teams, which in itself paves the way for a lackluster group stage as well as a weak contender in the knockout round.
In the old seeding format, the top seeds were occupied by the title holder and other top ranked teams across Europe based on the club coefficient rankings, creating an even spread of potentially high quality teams in the top seed, whereby reducing the chances of big teams facing each other in the group stages.
Continuing with the 2015/2016 example, let's assume a hypothetical situation were relatively weak teams from each seed, such as PSV, Bayer Leverkusen, CSKA Moscow and Astana are drawn together in the same group and further assume that PSV and Leverkusen happen to finish first and second respectively.
On the other hand, let's assume that Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach get drawn together in a separate group.
In such a scenario, there is a fair possibility that either Bayern or Real could get eliminated in the group stages since Roma and Monchengladbach are fairly strong teams despite being lower seeded sides, in which case, the competition could miss out on one, or even two, of the strongest teams in the knockout stages.
Looking at the above scenarios, it could well be possible for Monchengladbach to face PSV in the round-of-16, propelling one of these teams into the quarters where they could be faced with a potentially one sided tie against a European giant such as Real or Chelsea, something that is neither healthy for the competition nor exciting for viewers.
The older format promoted greater competition in latter stages
The old rule provided an even distribution of big teams across each group, which as a result enhanced the chances of those teams to qualify for the knockout round, whereby creating a more exciting second half of the competition.
Yes, the audience would want to see exciting games during the group stages, but it also important to have strong teams in the knockout phase as well.
If strong teams are drawn against considerably weaker teams in the knockout phase, the tie usually ends up being a formality where the bigger team cruises past the smaller team.
Another argument that can be made for the new format is that it provides diversity in the group stages and also presents weaker leagues with a chance to shine. However, the overall quality of the competition tends to suffer as a result, especially in the latter stages.
Also, even in the older format, there is always an off-chance where bigger teams could get eliminated in the group stages by weaker teams, but the probability of that happening is higher with the new rule.
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