Does the UEFA Champions League help big teams?
The UEFA Champions League wrapped up on Thursday morning (AEST) with a meager serving of surprises. The early exits of Juventus and Liverpool aside, another group stage has come and gone with such predictability that the format of the tournament has been queried – including by this writer.
It’s the age-old argument that the group stage favours the big teams. The theory going that the smaller teams, with their tiny squads and lower budgets to sign the best players, can’t hope to match the bigger teams over six games.
On the surface it’s an argument with merit but is it actually true?
Curious about the point I took a closer look at the results from this season’s group stage.
Firstly, I put the 32 teams into two groups of “big teams” and “small teams”.
The “big teams” were clubs that regularly find success on the continent and you would expect to go through. There are 11 of these and they are: Juventus, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool, Lyon, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Arsenal.
This means there are 21 “small teams” or sides who would generally find it difficult to go through to the next stage and they are: Bordeaux, Maccabi Haifa, CSKA Moscow, Wolfsburg, Besiktas, Marseille, FC Zurich, Porto, Atletico Madrid, APOEL, Fiorentina, Debreceni, Rubin Kazan, Dynamo Kyiv, Sevilla, Stuttgart, Rangers, Unirea Urziceni, Olympiakos, Standard Liege, AZ.
In the end nine of the “big teams” qualified for the next round with seven of the “small teams” also joining them. Considering there’s almost double the amount of “small teams” as big ones in the group stage, yet a lower ratio qualified for the Round of 16, the smaller clubs are obviously under performing in the six game group stage. Would these sides fare any better in a straight knockout tournament then?
I don’t want to go over the top with the statistics so I’ll keep things simple but I added every individual fixture from the group stage as if they were a home and away tie. For example, Bordeaux’s two meetings with Juventus in the group stage became a hypothetical 3-1 win for the French champions. I then only looked at the times a “small team” played a big one.
This happened seven out of 25 times (to make things simple I included draws in the Manchester United v Besiktas and Lyon v Fiorentina ties as wins). However, only Rubin Kazan’s 2-1 defeat of Barcelona, FC Zurich’s win by the same score line against AC Milan and Besiktas’ “defeat” of Manchester United were from sides who didn’t qualify from the group stage anyway.
When you consider a number of these hypothetical home and away fixtures saw the big teams resting the majority of their usual starting 11 in at least one leg, I get the sense that only a handful more, if any, small teams would get through to the round of 16 if the tournament was solely a knockout tournament.
These are obviously debatable and hypothetical situations but it’s just a simple exercise to highlight the point that while the group stage does give an advantage to big teams over their small opponents, the difference is so small its of little significance.
A real life example of this is that only one team outside of England’s ‘big four’ has won the FA Cup in … years. This is despite the tournament being unseeded, made up of one-off games and increasingly receiving less attention from the ‘big four’ clubs.
So, European football fans aren’t actually missing out on a better tournament because of the presence of a group stage. In fact, the Champions League group stage isn’t predictable because the group stage favours the big teams; it’s predictable simply because of the presence of these club football giants.
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