When UEFA draws groups for this year’s Champions League on Thursday in Monaco, the big news won’t come out of the first pot, where names like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and defending champions Bayern Munich wait to be drawn. Instead it’s pot two, from which Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus will be paired with another of Europe’s top clubs. Out of pot three, somebody will get grouped with Manchester City or Borussia Dortmund, while Rafa Benitez’s Napoli will be the club to avoid out of pot four.
Conceivably, you could get a group with Bayern, PSG, Manchester City and Napoli. Or Manchester United could be grouped with Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, and Real Sociedad. Regardless, with the increased number of strong teams outside Champions League’s top pot, the possibility of a group of death (or, groups of death) becomes more likely.
On Thursday, the 32 teams who’ve qualified for UEFA Champions League will be placed into four groups of eight, sorted by how well they’ve done in European competition over the last five years (a team’s UEFA coefficient). Each of the eight, four-team groups that make up the tournament’s main phase will feature a team from each pot. Most of the time, the system keeps Europe’s top performers from meeting too early in the competition, but in the case of teams that haven’t had major continental success in recent years — teams like Dortmund, Manchester City, Juventus and Napoli — the system can drastically underestimate their current quality.
All of which makes group stage much more fun. We could create a system that comes closer to a more accurate depiction of current quality – something that makes an attempt at looking at last year’s results while factoring in league strength; one that ignores Europa League results (this one does not). it’s be flawed and as debated as the current system, but it wouldn’t be difficult to come out with something “better.” We’d end up with eight relatively even quartets.
But we’d also bringing an element of sterility to group stage. Our hypothetical system would be more fair to the clubs, but it’d also be boring. Besides, with half the teams in each group already advancing to the next round, the status quo is pretty forgiving, offsetting the unfairness. If you can’t finish in the top 50 percentile in your quartet, you don’t have much of a claim to being viable knockout round competition.
Come tomorrow, we’ll see the unintended virtues of UEFA’s system, with Napoli’s draw from pot four the key to a potential group of death:
Pot One: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Chelsea, Manchester United, Porto, Real Madrid
Pot Two: Atlético Madrid, CSKA Moscow, Juventus, Marseille, Milan, PSG, Schalke, Shakhtar Donetsk
Pot Three: Ajax, Basel, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Leverkusen, Manchester City, Olympiakos, Zenit St. Petersburg
Pot Four: Anderlecht, Austria Wien, Celtic, Copenhagen, Napoli, Real Sociedad, Steaua Bucharest, Viktoria Plzen