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Champions League Qualification Explained

The Champions League is an annual competition in which the biggest teams from Europe play against each other for the UEFA Champions League Cup. A total of 80 teams are eligible to play, with 32 teams playing in the competition proper.

The 32 are seeded into eight groups of four, where each team plays against the others in the group twice, once home and once away. At the conclusion of the group stage, the top two teams in all groups progress to the last 16 round, where the teams who finished first play against teams who placed second from a different group, and the victors play in the quarter finals. From the quarter finals onwards, the teams are seeded without any protection (against teams from the same association or country playing against each other), to the semi-finals and the finals.

The Champions League is one of the most popular football competitions in the world, with the Champions League Final becoming the most watched sporting event in recent years. The 2012-13 Final between German rivals Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich had the highest television ratings to date, with more than 230 million viewers.

Champions League Automatic Selection

The Champions League has been home to some of the biggest clubs in world football, including giants Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Juventus amongst many more.

The top leagues have UEFA Association Coefficients that are determined each season by how successful their clubs are in the European Cups (Champions League and the UEFA Europa League). The Leagues are ranked, and then each of the leagues receives a number of Champions League places and Europa League places, depending on their rank.

The current top four domestic leagues in the UEFA Association rankings are the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga, which are given four champions league places each. These places are given to the clubs who finish in the top four. These are followed by the French Ligue One and Portuguese Primeira League, who each receive two places for the Champions League and one for the Qualifying rounds. They are followed by the Dutch Eredvisie, which has one Champions League place and one Qualifying round place.

The leagues who fall lower in the rankings receive a handful of places to the Champions Path, which can give the clubs an incentive to try and get into the Champions League.

Champions League Qualification

The Champions League Qualification rounds are split into the Champions Path and the League Path. A total of 54 teams from different European countries play each other; 43 in the Champions Path and 11 in the League Path.

The Champions Path

There is a preliminary round, in which four teams from the lowest ranked leagues (the leagues which ranked 52-55th in the UEFA Association Coefficient rankings) face each other in a playoff.

The winner of this preliminary round joins 31 other teams for the first qualifying round, while the three teams that lost go into the Europa League second qualifying round.

First Qualifying Round

The 31 teams are selected from the qualifying places given to the 20th to the 51st ranked leagues, and when the Preliminary rounds are over, they are seeded and put into eight groups of four. Each team plays two legs with the other three teams in their group, and at the end, the teams that finish in the top two in each group proceed to the second qualifying round, whilst the 16 losing clubs join the Europa League second qualifying round.

Second Qualifying Round

The sixteen winners of the previous round are joined by entrants from the 16th to the 19th Leagues from the rankings, and they play a two legged knockout in pairs. The ten winners proceed to the third qualifying round of the Champions League, while the ten losers are put into the Europa League third qualifying round.

Third Qualifying Round

The ten teams who won the second qualifying round are seeded with the two winners of the 14th and 15th ranked domestic leagues. The twelve teams are paired together, where they play a two legged round, the winners proceeding to the qualification playoffs, whilst the losers proceed to the Europa League qualification playoffs.

Champions League Qualification Playoffs

The six winners of the previous third and final qualifying round play in the Champions League (Champions Route) playoffs, and are joined in this round by the winners of the 12th and 13th ranked domestic leagues. The four winners of the two legged matches proceed to the Champions League Group Stage, and the four losers are put into the Europa League Group Stage.

League Path

This is a shorter route than the Champions Route, as the teams competing in this route play in higher ranked domestic leagues. To keep with the timeline of the parallel matches in the Champions Route, the League Route starts at the second round.

Second Qualifying Round

For those teams who won Champions League qualifying places by placing second in the 12th to 15th ranked leagues, they play in a separate round where the four teams are paired up and play two legged matches. The winners of the matchups proceed to the third qualifying round of the Champions League Route, whilst the losers go to the third qualifying round of the Europa League Route.

Third Qualifying Round

The two winners of the second qualifying round of the League Route play in the third round against the runners’ up of the 7th to the 11th ranked leagues and the team that finished third place in the 6th ranked league. The round comprises eight teams, with the four winners proceeding to the Champions League qualification playoffs, and the losers to the Europa League qualification playoffs.

Champions League Qualification Playoffs

The four winners of the previous round are paired and play a two legged knockout round, in which the two victors secure Champions League group stage places, whilst the losers go to the Europa League group stages.

Champions League Qualifying Winners

There are four teams that started their Champions League campaign in the qualifying rounds, yet managed to go all the way and become outright winners of the tournament.

Manchester United started their 1998-99 European campaign in the second qualifying round, after finishing second in the Premier League in the previous season (back then the rules were different). They claimed their 2nd European Cup in 1999, and made a historic treble.

AC Milan have managed to win the Champions League starting from a qualifying round twice, both in 2003 and 2007. In the 2001-02 Serie A season they finished fourth,  and in the 2005-06 season they finished 3rd, both times they were put into the third qualifying round of the contest.

In the 2003-04 Premier League season, Liverpool finished third, earning them a place in the third qualifying round in the 2004-05 Champions League. After going down 3-0 at half time, Liverpool made a final sprint levelling the game at full time, making the game go to extra time and then penalties, which they won in one of the most dramatic finals of a Champions League.

Barcelona also won the Champions League from a qualifying round, when they won it in 2008-09.

Qualifying Round Underdogs

While ten year ago you could find giant clubs starting their European campaigns from qualifying rounds, nowadays the tournament has been restructured, and you will rarely find a top European team playing in the qualification rounds. This gives a good opportunity to clubs in smaller leagues to try and climb into the Champions League, as the television rights and match bonuses would go a long way for them.

There are teams who climbed from the first round (in the four round system, made in 2010) and have reached the group stage. These include Red Star Belgrade (2018-19 and 2019-20), Ferencvaros (2020-21), and both Malmo and Sheriff Tiraspol (2021-22).

Unfortunately for these teams, that is where the fairy tale usually ends, Red Star Belgrade drew Liverpool, Napoli and PSG in 2018-19 and Bayern Munich, Tottenham and Olympiacos the following season, both times finishing bottom of their league.

Ferencvaros drew the group of death in their taste of the Champions League, drawing Juventus (when they had Cristiano Ronaldo) and Barcelona (when they still had Messi), and though they put on a brave face, they were thrashed in their outings against both giant clubs, with Barcelona netting 8 and Juventus 6 against the Hungarian club.

Malmo has also failed to survive this season's tournament, but Romanian club Sheriff Tiraspol have defied the odds and managed to put in some good performances in their group, even beating favourites Real Madrid 2-1 in Madrid.

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