How the Champions Path has helped Celtic

Georgios Samaras draws Celtic level against Shakhter Karagandy.



Celtic have reached the group stage of the Champions League for a second consecutive season following a lengthy qualifying campaign which saw them having to win three ties. It is fair to say that Neil Lennon, his players and Celtic supporters were not happy about having to play so many qualifying ties after their success last season, and while their claims may have some merit, I’ll explain why they should in fact be grateful for the changes which UEFA made from 2009/10 onwards.

Note that the aim of this blog is not to belittle the achievements of Celtic in the last two seasons (indeed they proved they were more than worthy of a group stage berth last season), but rather to debunk the myth that playing more games has made it more difficult for them.

Prior to the changes in 2009, UEFA granted automatic group stage entry to 16 teams, and the other 16 places went to the sides who fought their way through the qualifying rounds. Under the old system, the qualifying route was the same for all teams, whether they finished 4th in a bigger league or were champions of a smaller league, with the only differences being the rounds at which they entered. This meant that a side like Celtic could find themselves unseeded and facing a big name in the final qualifying round.

The biggest change from 2009 onwards was the introduction of separate “Champions” and “Non-Champions” qualification sections, designed to increase the number of national champions participating in the group stage. The number of sides with automatic group stage entry increased to 22, with the remaining 10 places given to qualifiers – 5 to the “Champions Path” and 5 to the “Non-Champions Path”.  These changes came at the behest of Michel Platini, who wanted more champions involved in the group stage – indeed he promised it to the smaller nations when he was campaigning for the UEFA presidency.

This change guarantees that there will be at least 17 champions in the group stages each year (18 in the seasons like this one where the holders are also national champions). This compares favourably to the seasons prior to the changes – in the five seasons prior to the change there were an average of 14.8 champions per season (2004/05 had 14, 2005/06 had 15, 2006/07 had 16, 2007/08 had 13 and 2008/09 had 16). With between 2 and 3 extra places available for champions each season, these changes have a clear benefit to the champions of the mid-ranked countries such as Scotland.

Celtic have been one of the key beneficiaries in the last two seasons, converting their last two titles into group stage berths, and as massive favourites for the next two Scottish titles (at least), they will have further opportunities to take advantage of the champions route.

The downside of the new system for Scottish clubs is that it will be much more difficult for the runners-up to qualify for the group stage, should we eventually get back the second Champions League spot which we had on and off for the last decade. The non-champions route means that they will inevitably face a side from a bigger country (eg England, Spain, Germany) in the final qualifying round, and could even have a tough tie in the round before that – as Motherwell found out last year.

To illustrate how the “Champions Path” was advantageous to Celtic this season, here’s how this year’s qualifying draw would have panned out under the old system:

1st Qualifying Round

Celtic would have been spared entry at this stage, meaning that they only had to participate in two qualifying rounds.  However, as you’ll see later, the standard of opposition in those two rounds would have been substantially higher.

The champions of the countries ranked between 25th and 53rd (excluding Liechtenstein who don’t have a league) would have entered at this stage.  The seeded and unseeded sides would have been as follows.


2nd Qualifying Round

The champions of the nations ranked 17th-24th would have entered at this stage.  Scotland were ranked 18th for this season, so Celtic would have been amongst these sides.  Also entering would have been the runners-up from the nations ranked 10th-15th.  This, of course, differs from the current system, where these sides would have been kept separate from the champions.

This round would have been drawn at the same time as the 1st Qualifying Round, so any unseeded sides who won in the 1st Qualifying Round would have taken over their opponent’s seeding.

Here is how the seeding would have looked.


Note that the opponents Celtic could have faced here are very similar to the sides they could have faced in the actual draw for the equivalent stage (3rd Qualifying Round).

Under the old system they would have avoided Sheriff Tiraspol, Maribor and Slovan Bratislava – all difficult opponents who they could have drawn in the actual draw, but the old system would also have thrown up potential tough ties against Swiss runners-up Grasshopper Zurich and Belgian runners-up Zulte Waregem.

Overall, it seems fair enough to argue that there is no real difference in the levels of potential opponents here.  However, that is not the case for the 3rd and final qualifying round under the old system.

3rd Qualifying Round

The champions of the nations ranked 11th-16th would enter here, along with the runners-up from the nations ranked 7th-9th.  On top of that, the 3rd placed sides from nations ranked 1st-6th and the 4th placed sides from nations ranked 1st-3rd would take part at this stage of the tournament.

This round would have been drawn before the 2nd Qualifying Round was complete, so UEFA would seed the draw on the assumption that all seeded teams won in the 2nd Qualifying Round.  This would leave the seedings looking like this:


Celtic would therefore have been on the cusp of a seeded spot, but would have missed out by a single spot.  That means that they could have faced the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Lyon or AC Milan at this stage.  Even their “easiest” potential opponents Basel, FC Copenhagen, Anderlecht or BATE Borisov would have provided very difficult ties.

Compare that to the current system, where Celtic were kept apart from the non-champions due to the separate sections of the draw, and were also comfortably seeded in the final qualifying round (Play-off Round).  A glance at their actual potential opponents in this year’s Play-off Round draw shows the massive difference between the two systems from Celtic’s point of view.

Indeed, even if Celtic had sneaked into the seeded pot for the hypothetical draw, they could have faced sides like Real Sociedad, Steaua Bucharest and PAOK who are still clearly a cut above the opponents they actually could have drawn this season.

The set-up of the Champions League is still clearly not perfect, and there are many valid criticisms which could be made, but I hope I have illustrated that for a side like Celtic it has in fact become easier to qualify for the group stage in recent years.  While they have complained about having to play three qualifying matches this season (and they will have to do so again next year), it is surely better to have three easier matches as a seeded side than to have two matches where one of them is substantially more difficult.