June 05, 2024

The last 'Champions League' as we know it. What's changing in UEFA's biggest club competition?

June 05, 2024

The last 'Champions League' as we know it. What's changing in UEFA's biggest club competition?

The 2023-24 UEFA Champions League season marked the end of an era. This follows previous significant changes, such as the introduction of the group stage in 1991-92 and the expansion and rebranding in 1992-93, when the competition transitioned from the European Cup to the current Champions League format.

With a new model in the first phase of the competition, where the group stage is replaced by a single general league table in a 'Swiss model', the changes to the Champions League are part of a broader set of alterations implemented by UEFA, which also affect the Europa League and the Conference League, and extend to the calculations of country and club rankings.

To be as well-prepared as possible for the next season, the Thinking Football Summit has prepared a guide to keep you informed about all the major changes that will alter European competitions as we know them.

What's changing?

More teams: The 2024-25 season will feature a more inclusive Champions League. The number of participants will increase from the current 32 teams to a total of 36 teams.

Qualification: Qualification for the Champions League will continue to be based on clubs' final standings in their domestic leagues, alongside each country's ranking, which can alter the number of spots available for European competitions, whether it be the Champions League, Europa League, or Conference League. The big news is the addition of four new spots. The first goes to the third-placed team in the league of the country ranked fifth in the access list, determined by UEFA's club association coefficient ranking, which this year is France. The second spot goes to the champions' path, which occurs in the pre-qualifying stages for national league champions whose first-place finish doesn't grant direct access to the new 'league phase' of the Champions League, increasing the number of teams in this phase from four to five. The third and fourth spots will be awarded to the associations with the best collective performance of their clubs in the previous season, based on the club coefficient points obtained by each club divided by the number of participating clubs from that association. Next season, the Bundesliga (Germany) and Serie A (Italy) will benefit from these two extra spots.

Swiss System: The competition will adopt a 'Swiss system', ending the traditional group stage. The Champions League will start with a league phase, where clubs are ranked together in a single table. In this new format, each team will play eight matches, half at home and half away, against different opponents. This replaces the previous format where teams played six matches, two against each of three different teams.

Draw: The eight opponents each club will face will be determined by a draw that pairs teams from the four traditional pots, which align the various participants by strength. Each team will play two opponents from each pot, with one home match and one away match against each. This change aims to broaden the range of possible opponents and increase the competitiveness of the first phase of the Champions League.

Qualification for the knockout phase:  In this new format, qualification for the knockout stage will be based on each team's ranking in the general table. The top eight teams will advance directly to the Round of 16, while teams finishing between 9th and 24th will compete in a two-legged playoff to determine the remaining eight teams for the Round of 16. The general table will be organized conventionally, with each win earning 3 points and each draw earning 1 point. Tie-break criteria include goal difference, number of goals scored, number of away goals scored, number of wins, number of away wins, total points of the opponents faced, goal difference of opponents faced, goals scored by opponents faced, disciplinary record, and finally, UEFA ranking. Head-to-head results will no longer be used as a tie-breaker, as teams do not play each other twice in this phase.

Elimination: The bottom 12 teams in the 'league phase' will be eliminated from European competitions altogether, removing the possibility of dropping into the Europa League for a 'second chance'.

Formats of the Europa League and Conference League: The formats of UEFA's other two club competitions will adopt changes that are similar to the Champions League. The Europa League will also feature a 'league phase' with eight matches against eight different clubs, split evenly between home and away. The Conference League will adopt the same system but with only six matches in the 'league phase'. Both competitions will also expand to include 36 participants.

Calendar: The main difference in the scheduling of matches is the extension of the 'league phase' (formerly the group stage) until January. Thus, Champions League and Europa League matches will be played from September to January, while Conference League matches will be played from September to December. Each of UEFA's three club competitions will have an exclusive week of matches, with no other competition scheduled for that week. In this scenario, Champions League matches will be played on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. In the exclusive week for the Europa League, matches will be held on Wednesday and Thursday. Lastly, in the exclusive week for the Conference League, matches will be played on Thursday. In the final matchday of each 'league phase', all matches will be played simultaneously.

Match Times: Champions League matches will keep the same kick-off times, with two matches starting at 17:45 (GMT+1) and the rest at 20:00 (GMT+1). From the quarter-finals onwards, all matches will kick off at 20:00.

Changes in Rankings: With the change in UEFA competition formats, the calculation of country and club rankings will be adjusted to reflect participation in different competitions, with special emphasis on the Champions League, and to reward clubs that advance further. While 2 points for a win and 1 point for a draw remain, the big change is in the allocation of bonus points. A team finishing first in the 'league phase' of the Champions League will receive 12 bonus points, in addition to those earned from the eight matches. Bonus points decrease by 0.25 points per position, with the 24th-placed team, the last to qualify for the knockout phase playoff, receiving 6.25 points. All other teams, ranked between 25th and 36th, will receive 6 points. In the Europa League, the same model applies, with the first-placed team receiving 6 bonus points. The same decrease applies until the 24th position, receiving 0.25 points. The last 12 teams will not receive any bonus points. In the Conference League, the first-placed team in the 'league phase' will receive 4 bonus points, with the decrement of 0.25 points applied until the 9th-placed team, receiving 2 points, after which the decrement changes to 0.125 points up to the 24th position, which will receive 0.125 points. As in the Europa League, the last 12 teams will not receive any extra points beyond those earned in matches. In the knockout phase playoffs, points earned will only count towards the country rankings, not the club rankings. Finally, there will also be bonus points for each stage reached from the Round of 16 onwards: 1.5 points in the Champions League, 1 point in the Europa League, and 0.5 points in the Conference League.