European Spots (2013/14)

 

As the season approaches its climax, it’s time to have a look at the qualification situation for next season’s European competitions.  Like last season, Scotland will have four spots in Europe.  However, due to the extremely high scoring 2007/08 season having dropped off the coefficient list, some of these teams will enter earlier than they did last season.  The main damage to the coefficient was done by the very poor score in 2008/09, which thankfully will drop off after this season is complete.

Champions League

Premiership champions Celtic will be the only Scottish side to enter next season’s Champions League, and will enter in the 2nd Qualifying Round – the same stage as this season.  That means they will have to progress through three qualifying rounds in order to make the group stage.  However, just like this season, they will only face champions of smaller countries, avoiding the 3rd and 4th placed sides from bigger nations.  As I discussed here, that should give them an easier route to the group stage.  Their good performances over the last two Champions League campaigns mean that it is almost certain that they will be seeded in each of their three qualifying rounds.

Europa League

There are 3 Europa League places available for Scottish clubs.  These spots will be allocated to the Scottish Cup winners and the sides finishing 2nd and 3rd in the Premiership.  If the Scottish Cup winners also qualify for the Europa League via their league position, then the additional place will go to the 4th placed side in the Premiership.

There is always confusion about whether the runners-up in the Scottish Cup would qualify for Europe if the Scottish Cup winners qualify via their league place.  UEFA’s rules state that if the cup winners qualify for the Champions League, then the runners-up take the Europa League spot, but if the cup winners qualify for the Europa League then the extra spot goes to the league.  So last season, Hibs qualified for Europe after finishing as Scottish Cup runners-up, because Celtic qualified for the Champions League.  But the previous season, Hibs did not qualify for Europe as Scottish Cup runners-up, because Hearts only qualified for the Europa League via their league position.

This season, Celtic will take the Champions League spot, and they are already eliminated from the Scottish Cup.  Therefore there will be no spot available for the Scottish Cup runners-up.  If the Scottish Cup winners have already qualified for Europe via their league position, then the extra spot will go to the side who finish in 4th.

To sum all that up:

  • Scottish Cup winners will qualify.
  • 2nd and 3rd in the Premiership will definitely qualify.
  • 4th in the Premiership will only qualify if the Scottish Cup winners also qualify for Europe via the league.

The Scottish Cup winners and the 2nd placed side in the Premiership will enter at the 2nd Qualifying Round, while the 3rd placed side in the Premiership will have to enter in the 1st Qualifying Round (which kicks off on 3rd July, 10 days before the World Cup is finished!).  If the Scottish Cup winners also finish 2nd, then the 3rd placed side would enter in QR2 and the 4th placed side would enter in QR1.

The Ajax Paradox

Paradox: noun – a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.

The current Group H standings

The current Group H standings

Tuesday night is a crucial night for Celtic in the Champions League. They host a stuttering AC Milan side, while Ajax take on Barcelona in Amsterdam. If Celtic win and Ajax don’t, Neil Lennon’s side will move into 2nd place in the group.

So far so simple. But what if I was to tell you that, if Celtic win, they would actually want Ajax to draw rather than lose against Barcelona? It sounds daft, but it’s actually true.

Let’s examine the possibilities. A Celtic win on Tuesday is eminently possible, but it seems unlikely they’ll manage the 3 goal win they’d need to lead AC Milan on head-to head.  In 46 previous Champions League group stage matches, Celtic have only once won by such a margin (v Benfica in 2006). So let’s assume that Celtic record a nice simple one goal win.

And now let’s consider those two possible outcomes of the Ajax game. Scenario A is based on Ajax LOSING to Barcelona. Scenario B is based on Ajax DRAWING with Barcelona.

Scenario A: Celtic win and Ajax lose

Scenario A: Celtic win and Ajax lose.

Scenario B - Celtic win and Ajax draw.

Scenario B – Celtic win and Ajax draw.

In the final game, Celtic are away to Barcelona, while AC Milan host Ajax. Even the most confident of Celtic fans would struggle to predict anything other than a defeat in the Nou Camp, so let’s examine the outcomes based on a Celtic defeat.

In Scenario A, it is impossible for Celtic to qualify if they lose to Barcelona. If either AC Milan or Ajax win, they will leapfrog Celtic in the group. If the match finishes as a draw, AC Milan would pip Celtic on the head-to-head.

The potential three-way head-to-head table.

The potential three-way head-to-head table.

However, in Scenario B, Celtic do still have a chance if they lose. An Ajax or AC Milan win would see Neil Lennon’s side eliminated, but a draw in Milan would see all 3 sides finish level on 6 points. In that case, it would come down to the three-way head-to-head record – ie results against Barcelona would be excluded. And Celtic would top that particular table with 6 points compared to Ajax and AC Milan’s 5.

I’m aware that I’ve made a couple of assumptions there, but actually they don’t really matter. If Celtic beat AC Milan (by any scoreline at all) there is no scenario where an Ajax defeat is any better than an Ajax draw. But as I’ve shown, there are scenarios where the draw is preferable to Celtic.

If Barcelona score on Tuesday, I’m looking forward to hearing a confused murmur make its way around Celtic Park.

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.

QR1

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.

QR2

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:

QR3

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.

Celtic FC in Europe 2013/14

The draw for the Champions League 2nd Qualifying Round will take place on Friday at 11am, with Celtic entering the “Champions section” at this stage.  They will be hoping to make it to the group stage for the second consecutive season, and will have to win three matches to do so.  Their 2nd Qualifying Round matches will take place on 16th/17th July and 23rd/24th July.

Celtic will be taking part in Europe for the 19th consecutive season, and their 49th season overall.  Rangers (51) are the only Scottish side with more appearances, though that record is likely to be surpassed by Celtic in the next few years.  It will be the Parkhead side’s 28th participation in Europe’s elite competition, a tournament which they famously won in Lisbon in 1967.

There are still a few countries which Celtic have yet to visit on European duty – most notably Bulgaria, Turkey, Cyprus & Northern Ireland.  Spanish clubs have provided the opposition most often – 30 times in total.  Their most frequent opponents are Barcelona, who they have now faced 10 times in Europe.  The map below shows the countries which Celtic have visited.  There are a few countries shaded in light green – these  countries have never actually been visited by Celtic but were part of USSR/Yugoslavia when Celtic played there.

Celtic

The countries Celtic have visited on European duty.

History

The club have played 282 matches in European competition, winning 132, drawing 52 and losing 98 (this tally includes the actual on-field results for matches against Rapid Vienna and Sion which were later annulled/changed by UEFA).  It will come as no surprise to anyone that the vast majority of their defeats were away, and the vast majority of their wins at home.  Celtic have only lost 18 of their 139 home games in Europe, but have won just 36 out of 137 away from home.  This record has been taken to extremes in recent years, with a formidable home record often cancelled out by abysmal away form, though 2012/13 saw them pick up 3 wins out of 6 on the road.  Henrik Larsson is Celtic’s record European goalscorer – with 34 goals he has scored more than twice as many as any other player.

Celtic’s first European adventure came in the 1962/63 Fairs Cup, where they were drawn against Valencia in the 1st Round.  They travelled to the Mestalla for their first match, and came away with a 4-2 defeat, having trailed 3-0 at half-time.  Bobby Carroll scored both goals, becoming the club’s first ever European goalscorer.  The 2nd leg at Parkhead finished 2-2, meaning the Bhoys crashed to a 6-4 aggregate defeat in their first ever European tie.

The following season saw a more impressive run, this time in the Cup Winners’ Cup.  Basel, Dinamo Zagreb and Slovan Bratislava were dispatched on the way to the semi-final, and a 3-0 win over MTK Budapest at Celtic Park put them within touching distance of the final.  But an amazing turnaround in the 2nd leg (not uncommon in those days) saw Jimmy McGrory’s side lose 4-0 in Hungary to miss out on a chance of their first European trophy.

Two years later, with Celtic now managed by Jock Stein, they lost out at the same stage of the same tournament, having again won at home in the first leg.  Liverpool were beaten 1-0 at Celtic Park, but won 2-0 in a controversial 2nd leg at Anfield, which saw Celtic denied a late goal which would have taken them through to a Hampden final against Borussia Dortmund.  Celtic fans rioted after the final whistle, with cans and bottles raining down from the stand.

The next season, 1966/67, Stein took his side into the European Cup for the first time.  Victories over FC Zurich, Nantes and Vojvodina took Celtic into the semi-final, and this time they managed to hold on to a first-leg lead against Dukla Prague.  After a 3-1 win at Celtic Park, they drew 0-0 in Czechoslovakia to become the first British side to reach the final of Europe’s elite competition.  Stein took his side to Lisbon to face Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale side, famous exponents of the defensive “catenaccio” system.  Despite falling behind to a Sandro Mazzola penalty, Celtic fought back with goals from Tommy Gemmell and Stevie Chalmers to win their first, and so far only, European trophy.

Stein’s side were the first side outside of Spain, Portugal and Italy to win the trophy, ending the era of Southern European domination.  Only 1 of the next 17 trophies would go to clubs from one of those nations, but unfortunately Scotland weren’t amongst the winners again – 16 of the next 17 went to clubs from England, West Germany and the Netherlands.  Stein’s achievement was all the more remarkable given that all of his side were born within a 30 mile radius of Celtic Park.  1967 was an annus mirabilis for Scottish football – on top of Celtic’s win, Rangers reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final, and Killie made the semi-final of the Fairs Cup.  That same summer, Scotland recorded their famous 3-2 win over England at Wembley.

Celtic continued to be competitive in the European Cup during the remainder of the “9 in a row” years, regularly reaching the quarter-finals and semi-finals, and making it to another final in 1970.  This time, Stein couldn’t lead them to glory, as they lost 2-1 to Feyenoord in the San Siro, with Ove Kindvall scoring with less than 5 minutes of extra-time remaining.  Future Celtic manager Wim Jansen played in the Feyenoord midfield that night.

The end of the “9 in a row” era led to a huge downturn in fortune in European competition, something that wasn’t properly remedied until the eras of Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan.  Between 1974/75 and 2000/01, Celtic failed to progress through more than two ties in any season, suffering embarrassing defeats to the likes of Wacker Innsbruck, Politehnica Timisoara, Neuchatel Xamax and Croatia Zagreb.

In O’Neill’s 2nd season in charge (2001/02), he took Celtic into the Champions League group stage for the first time, thanks to an impressive 3-1 win away to Ajax.  In the group stagea they were drawn gainst Juventus, Porto and Rosenborg.  Celtic won all 3 home matches, but could only finish 3rd after losing each of their away games – something that they would become used to over the next few years.

The following year, they suffered a disappointing elimination in the Champions League qualifier against Basel, but it would prove to be a blessing in disguise, as they dropped down into the UEFA Cup.  Heavily inspired by 11 goals from Henrik Larsson, they eliminated Suduva, Blackburn, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista to reach the final in Seville against Jose Mourinho’s Porto.  Despite a double from Larsson in the final, Porto came out on top, winning 3-2 after extra-time.  Mourinho’s side would go on to win the Champions League the following season.  Celtic were awarded the FIFA Fair Play Awarded for the behaviour of their supporters before, during, and after the final.

O’Neill got his side into the Champions League group stage on two further occasions, but again failed to get them into the knock-out stages.  In 2003/04, they were heading through with 5 minutes to go, before Bobo Balde decided to play basketball in his own box, giving Lyon a penalty and progression.  That led to another UEFA Cup run, with 19 year-old David Marshall turning in a sensational performance in the Nou Camp to eliminate Barcelona in the last 16, before Villarreal eliminated them in the quarter-final.

Gordon Strachan would succeed where O’Neill failed, but only after an ignominous start.  In his first match in charge, they suffered a 5-0 defeat away to Artmedia Bratislava in the 2005/06 Champions League.  Despite a battling display at Celtic Park, they failed to overturn the deficit, winning 4-0 but losing out 5-4 on aggregate.

Strachan would redeem himself the following season, squeezing through a Champions League group containing Manchester United, FC Copenhagen and Benfica, courtesy of 3 home wins.  Again, they lost all of their away matches, but it didn’t matter this time.  Progression was secured with a game to spare after a Shunsuke Nakamura free-kick and an Artur Boruc penalty save secured a 1-0 home win over Man Utd.  They were drawn against AC Milan in the last 16, and turned in two outstanding defensive displays to keep things goalless after 180 minutes, before Kaka broke their hearts in extra-time in the San Siro.

The following season, they again reached the last 16 with 3 home wins and 3 away defeats in the groups – this time against AC Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk and Benfica.  Barcelona lay in wait in the knock-out stages, and Lionel Messi inspired them to a 3-2 win at Celtic Park, although Celtic led twice thanks to Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Barry Robson.  Xavi scored the only goal in the Nou Camp to see Barcelona comfortably through.

Strachan’s side failed to make an impact in the group stage during his last season in charge, and all Tony Mowbray had to show for his short spell in charge was a 2-0 away win against Dynamo Moscow, which was rare and impressive in equal measures.  Neil Lennon had a difficult start in Europe, losing out to Braga and Utrecht in his first season in charge, then failing on the pitch against Sion before being reprieved by UEFA.  They gave a better account of themselves in a tough group containing eventual winners Atletico Madrid plus Rennes and Udinese, but ultimately failed to progress, finishing 3rd.

But Lennon and his side had a much more impressive season last year.  After comfortably dispatching HJK Helsinki and Helsingborg in the qualifying rounds, they reached the Champions League group stage, where they were drawn with Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow.  The campaign kicked off with a disappointing draw at home to Benfica, but a sensational 3-2 win away to Spartak Moscow (their first away group stage win) put them in a strong position heading into a double header against Barcelona.

There was late disappointment at the Nou Camp, as Jordi Alba scored a last gasp winner to deny Celtic a point, but they took revenge a fortnight later when goals from Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt sealed a famous 2-1 win over the Catalan giants.  A score draw away to Benfica in the next match would have taken Celtic through, but a 2-1 defeat meant that qualification went down to the final match.  Kris Commons scored a crucial late penalty to seal a 2-1 win over Spartak Moscow at Celtic Park, taking Celtic into the last 16.  Italian champions Juventus proved too strong for Celtic, winning 3-0 at Celtic Park and 2-0 in Turin to end a memorable campaign for Neil Lennon’s men.

2013/14 Champions League

Celtic will have to progress through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stage. Their task is made easier by the fact that they are in the “Champions” section, meaning they will face champions of other small countries and avoid sides from the bigger nations.  Celtic’s high UEFA coefficient means that they will be seeded in each of the three qualifying rounds, and as such should be expected to make it through.

The draws for the 1st and 2nd Qualifying Round are held at the same time, meaning that the outcome of the 1st Qualifying Round is not known at the time of the draw.  This means that Celtic could end up in a situation where they don’t know who they will play until a week before their match (there is around a 12% chance of this happening).  For the purposes of the 2nd Qualifying Round draw, UEFA assume that the seeded side will win in each of the 1st Qualifying Round ties.

1st Qualifying Round

Matches: 2nd/3rd July & 9th/10th July

Celtic will not take part in this round, but as mentioned above, they could end up facing one of the winners in the next round.  Only 4 teams participate in this round – the champions of the 4 lowest ranked UEFA nations (excluding Gibaltar, who joined too late to participate this season).

CL1

2nd Qualifying Round

Matches: 16th/17th July & 23rd/24th July

The two winners from the 1st Qualifying Round will be joined by 32 other teams, including Celtic.  These sides are the champions of the nations ranked 16th-49th by UEFA (excluding Liechtenstein, who do not have a league and thus are not eligible for Champions League entry).

If Celtic are eliminated at this stage, they do NOT drop down into the Europa League and would be out of Europe completely.

The seedings for the 2nd Qualifying Round are listed below.  The sides in blue and italics enter at the 1st Qualifying Round, and could therefore be replaced by the unseeded sides from that round (see the list above).

CL2

This draw is often split into north/south regional sections for UEFA, but these are often not released publicly until after the draw.  If that is the case, Celtic’s likely opponents would be Hafnafjordur, TNS, Sligo Rovers, EB Streymur (or QR1 opponents), Cliftonville, Daugava Daugavpils, Nomme Kalju or Fola Esch.

3rd Qualifying Round

Matches: 30th/31st July & 6th/7th August

The 17 winners from the 2nd Qualifying Round will joined by FC Basel, APOEL Nicosia and Austria Vienna (the champions of the nations ranked 14th-16th by UEFA.  This round will be drawn before the 2nd Qualifying Round is complete, so again UEFA will assume that the seeded sides from the 2nd Qualifying Round win when deciding seedings for this round.  If Celtic make it through, they are guaranteed to be seeded for the 3rd Qualifying Round.

Should Celtic lose at this stage, they would drop down into the Europa League Play-off Round.

The seedings for the 3rd Qualifying Round are listed below.  The clubs in blue and italics are the seeded sides from the 2nd Qualifying Round – if these sides lose in that round, they will be replaced by the side who beat them, but the seeding would be unchanged.

CL3

Play-off Round

Matches: 20th/21st August & 27th/28 August

The 10 winners from the 3rd Qualifying Round will progress to this round.  Celtic are guaranteed to be seeded if they make it to this round, and are guaranteed to avoid FC Basel, BATE Borisov, Steaua Bucharest and APOEL Nicosia should those sides progress.  They could potentially face any of the other sides listed above.Should Celtic lose at this stage, they would drop down into the Europa League group stage.

Group Stage

Matches: 17th/18th September, 1st/2nd October, 22nd/23rd October, 5th/6th November, 26th/27th November & 10th/11th December

The group stage is obviously still a long way away for Celtic, though the seeding suggests they should get there.  If they do make it to the group stage, it is almost certain that they would be in Pot 4 (the lowest pot) for the group stage draw.  There is a theoretical chance of them being in Pot 3, but that would require a host of unlikely results across the qualification rounds.

How to Qualify For Europe – an Update

 

As the SPL approaches its climax, it’s time to have a look at what clubs need to do to qualify for Europe this season.  Due to poor performances in Europe between 2007/08 and 2011/12, Scotland will have four teams in Europe rather than the five teams which took part last season.  Some of these teams will enter earlier than they did in previous seasons too.

Champions League

The SPL champions will enter next season’s Champions League.  Celtic are almost certain to take up that spot, and will enter in the 2nd Qualifying Round – a round earlier than they did last year.  That means they will have to progress through three qualifying rounds in order to make the group stage.  However, just like this season, they will only face champions of smaller countries, avoiding the 3rd and 4th placed sides from bigger nations.  In theory, that should give them an easier route to the group stage.  Their impressive performances in this season’s Champions League mean that it is almost certain that they will be seeded in each of their three qualifying rounds.

Europa League

Scotland will have three Europa League spots next season – two for the SPL, plus one for the Scottish Cup.  Hibs will take up the Scottish Cup spot regardless of the outcome of the final, because opponents Celtic will take part in the Champions League next season.  Hibs will be joined in the Europa League by the sides finishing 2nd and 3rd in this season’s SPL.

One of the three sides will enter the Europa League at the 3rd Qualifying Round, meaning they would have to win two ties to reach the Group Stage.  The other two sides will enter at the 2nd Qualifying Round and will have to win three ties to get to the Group Stage.  Exactly which clubs enter at which stage depends on the outcome of the Scottish Cup final.

If Hibs win the Scottish Cup

  • Hibs will enter the 3rd Qualifying Round.
  • 2nd and 3rd in the SPL will enter the 2nd Qualifying Round.


If Celtic win the Scottish Cup

  • 2nd in the SPL will enter the the 3rd Qualifying Round
  • Hibs and 3rd in the SPL will enter the 2nd Qualifying Round.

How To Qualify For Europe

As the SPL approaches its climax, it’s time to have a look at what clubs need to do to qualify for Europe this season.  Due to poor performances in Europe between 2007/08 and 2011/12, Scotland will have four teams in Europe rather than the five teams which took part last season.  Some of these teams will enter earlier than they did in previous seasons too.

Champions League

The SPL champions will enter next season’s Champions League.  Celtic are almost certain to take up that spot, and will enter in the 2nd Qualifying Round – a round earlier than they did last year.  That means they will have to progress through three qualifying rounds in order to make the group stage.  However, just like this season, they will only face champions of smaller countries, avoiding the 3rd and 4th placed sides from bigger nations.  In theory, that should give them an easier route to the group stage.  Their impressive performances in this season’s Champions League mean that it is almost certain that they will be seeded in each of their three qualifying rounds.

Europa League

The Europa League places are slightly more complicated.  There are 3 places available, and they will be allocated in the following order of preference.

  • Scottish Cup Winner (if not already qualified for Champions League)
  • 2nd in SPL
  • 3rd in SPL
  • Scottish Cup Runner-up (if Champions League qualifiers win Cup)
  • 4th in SPL

What that means

The 2nd and 3rd placed clubs in the SPL are guaranteed a Europa League spot.

There is also a spot available for the winners of the Scottish Cup.  If the Scottish Cup is won by a club which qualifies for the Champions League, then the Scottish Cup runner-up will get the other available place.

4th place in the SPL can qualify in one of two ways:

  • Scottish Cup won by the team who finishes 2nd or 3rd in the SPL.
  • Scottish Cup won by Celtic and they beat the team who finishes 2nd or 3rd in the SPL in the final.

The “best” qualifier (either the Scottish Cup winners or 2nd in the SPL) will enter the Europa League 3rd Qualifying Round, and would have to win two ties to reach the group stage.  The other two sides will enter at the 2nd Qualifying Round and would have to win three ties to reach the group stage.

The Rise and Rise of the Champions League

I put together the following piece for Motherwell FC’s match magazine for the Panathinaikos game.  Thought I might as well share it.

 

The Champions League is without doubt the most popular sporting event in Europe, possibly even the world According to UEFA, the 2012 final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea attracted over 300 million viewers, while the match was the subject of 4.8 million tweets. With the tournament now a global phenomenon, it is easy to forget that the Champions League concept is just 20 years old, and that its predecessor, the European Cup, has been around for less than 60 years.

Even though organised club football was being played as early as the late 1850s, and national cup competitions and leagues started in the 1870s, it was a while before anyone suggested a pan-European tournament to decide the best team in the continent. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were a few local tournaments such as the Mitropa Cup and the Latin Cup, but these only covered part of the continent.

As was the case with the World Cup and European Championships, the driving forces behind the European Cup were French. In the early 1950s, Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran of esteemed French sports newspaper “L’Equipe” proposed a tournament involving the biggest and best teams in Europe. Their idea came to fruition in time for the 1955/56 season, with 16 teams from across the continent invited to take part.

Only 7 of those teams were national champions, with the organisers inviting some sides based on their size and fanbase rather than their achievements. That included 5th placed Hibs who were preferred to Scottish champions Aberdeen. Hibs reached the semi-final of that first tournament, losing to French champions Stade de Reims. The tournament was won by Real Madrid, as it would be in each of the next 4 seasons.

The tournament was an immediate success. Over 38,000 turned up for the first final in Paris, and a year later there were more than 3 times as many at the Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid beat Fiorentina. The organisers very quickly dropped the invitational nature of the tournament in favour of meritocracy, making the European Cup a true contest between national champions. As years and decades passed, the competition continued to grow in stature, providing a multitude of memorable moments along the way.

But in the late 80s and early 90s, sport, and in particular football, became big business. The larger clubs started to outgrow the European Cup model, and wanted a format which allowed spectators and TV viewers to see the best play the best every year. Even with seeding, a knockout competition was susceptible to surprise results, and one bad performance could see a big side bow out. This led to the introduction of a group stage for the first time in 1991/92. The teams which reached the last eight were drawn into two groups of four, with the winners of each group proceeding to the final. That final saw Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona beat Sampdoria at Wembley to win the last ever European Cup (and Barcelona’s first).

Buoyed by the success of the group stage, UEFA decided to rebrand the trophy as the Champions League for the 1992/93 season, with the aim of converting footballing success into commercial revenue. By sheer chance, this new era in European football coincided with the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia, increasing the number of entrants from 32 to 36 and a year to later 42. This would set the ball rolling on the seemingly endless expansion of the tournament, an expansion which of course has led to Motherwell’s participation tonight!

The inaugural Champions League still consisted of only league champions, and followed the same format as the previous season’s European Cup. Rangers were the first Scottish side to make the group stage, and were just 90 minutes away from the final as they entered a last day showdown. Walter Smith’s side could only draw with CSKA Moscow at Ibrox, while Marseille secured a 1-0 win away to Club Brugge to squeeze into the final.

Marseille went on to defeat AC Milan in the final to become the first winners of the Champions League, but their victory was tarnished by a match-fixing scandal in their domestic campaign. Contrary to popular belief, they were not stripped of their Champions League title, and there was no evidence of wrongdoing in their European campaign, but a cloud still hangs over their success.

As a result of their misdeeds, Marseille were banned from the 1993/94 season – the only time the holders have not defended their trophy. The second season of the tournament also saw the first of many format changes, with the reintroduction of semi-finals involving the top two from each group. Unusually, the semi-finals were one-legged affairs with the two group winners given home advantage, an experiment which lasted just one season. AC Milan and Barcelona both comfortably won their home semi-finals, setting up a showpiece final in Athens, where the Italian side produced one of the greatest performances in Champions League history, crushing the Catalans 4-0.

The 1994/95 season saw the first deviation from the spirit of the old European Cup. Troubled by the expansion of the tournament as a result of sudden influx of new nations, UEFA decided to restrict Champions League entry to only the top 24 nations, with the champions of the smaller countries entering the UEFA Cup. This facilitated an increase in the number of groups from two to four, with the top two in each group progressing to the quarter-finals.

This format continued for three seasons, yielding three different winners. In 1994/95, an 18 year-old Patrick Kluivert scored the only goal as his star-studded Ajax side beat AC Milan in the final. Ajax beat reached the final again the following season, beating tonight’s opponents Panathinaikos in the semi-final. This time, they lost out to Italian opposition, defeated on penalties by Juventus. That Ajax side also contained van der Sar, Davids, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Overmars, Kanu, Litmanen and both de Boer brothers, but all of them departed for Spain, Italy or England over the next couple of years, and the Dutch side have never really been competitive in the tournament since.

1996/97 saw an ex-Motherwell player lift the trophy. Paul Lambert was part of a ‘Well side which had run Borussia Dortmund close in the 1994/95 UEFA Cup, and the German side’s manager Ottmar Hitzfeld was impressed enough to sign the Scotland midfielder just over a year later. Lambert turned in a majestic display as Dortmund won 1-0 at Old Trafford in the semi-final, and he went on to mark Zinedine Zidane out of the final, which his side won 3-1.

The champions of the smaller nations returned to the fold in 1997/98 as part of an expansion of the tournament. For the first time, the runners-up from Germany, Spain, Italy and England were granted entry, the first step towards the four-team entry system we have today. The number of groups increased again, from four to six, with the group winners being joined in the quarter-finals by the two best runners-up. The group stage provided one of the most memorable moments in the history of the tournament, 21 year-old Andriy Shevchenko launching his career with a hat-trick for Dynamo Kyiv as they won 4-0 in the Nou Camp. Real Madrid would go on to win the trophy, with Predrag Mijatovic scoring the only goal in a dull final against Juventus.

The following season’s final was much more eventful. Manchester United and Bayern Munich met in Barcelona, with the English side missing the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes . Bayern took the lead through Mario Basler’s early goal, but were mugged in stoppage time as Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in quick succession to steal the trophy for Alex Ferguson’s side.

The 1999/2000 season featured a further expansion of the tournament. The group stage of the tournament moved to the current total of 32 teams, and the bigger nations were allowed a third entrant. The next four seasons would feature the much-maligned “2nd Group Stage”, meaning teams had to play at least 17 matches to win the tournament. Real Madrid won the first tournament in this format, with Steve McManaman scoring the pick of the goals in a 3-0 win over Valencia – the first time two teams from the same country met in the final.

Valencia were runners-up again the following year, with Bayern Munich exorcising the demons of 1999. The Germans won the final on penalties following a tame 1-1 draw. That season marked the final expansion of the tournament to its current size, with the biggest nations given four places in the tournament.

The 2002 final at Hampden provided one of the most famous goals in the stadium’s illustrious history as Zinedine Zidane’s volley decided a tight match against Bayer Leverkusen. That was Real Madrid’s ninth title, and they still await “La Decima” – their historic tenth.

A year later, AC Milan beat Juventus on penalties after an incredibly cagey 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Andriy Shevchenko scored the winning spot-kick. 2003/04 provided a surprise final, with Porto and Monaco battling through to the final. Jose Mourinho’s Porto side had beaten Celtic in the UEFA Cup final the previous season, and he followed that success up with an even bigger one, comfortably winning the final 3-0 in what proved to be his final match before moving to Chelsea.

Mourinho’s Chelsea side faced Liverpool eight times in the Champions League, and the first of these meetings came in the 2004/05 semi-final. The only “goal” of the tie came from Liverpool’s Luis Garcia, though his shot may not have actually crossed the line. The final in Istanbul provided one of the most miraculous comebacks in the tournament’s history. Liverpool trailed AC Milan 3-0 at half-time, but scored three goals in six second half minutes to force extra-time and penalties. Andriy Shevchenko, Milan’s hero from 2003, saw his spot kick saved as Liverpool triumphed.

2005/06 heralded the start of Barcelona’s era. The Catalans have reached the semi-final in all but one of the last seven seasons, winning the trophy three times. The first of those three successes came against Arsenal in Paris, when Henrik Larsson came off the bench to set up two goals in the last 15 minutes. Their other wins came in 2008/09 and 2010/11, with Pep Guardiola’s side giving Manchester United a footballing lesson in both finals.

Even with Barcelona’s dominance, there have still been opportunities for other sides to get their hands on the trophy. The 2006/07 final gave AC Milan the chance for revenge against Liverpool, and they duly grabbed the opportunity. Pippo Inzaghi scored twice in a 2-1 victory. The following year, Manchester United and Chelsea met in Moscow, with Alex Ferguson’s side winning on penalties after John Terry’s famous slip.

2009/10 saw Jose Mourinho win again, with Diego Milito scoring a double in the final against Bayern Munich. Bayern would again lose out as Chelsea finally got their hands on the trophy last May, with Didier Drogba scoring the winning kick in a penalty shootout.

In spite of the criticism it receives, the Champions League remains an exciting and unpredictable competition. There have been 13 different winners in the 20 seasons of the rebranded tournament, and no side has managed to retain the trophy in that period. The tournament still manages to throw up surprises such as APOEL Nicosia’s run to last year’s quarter-finals, and of course, we all hope that Motherwell can emulate that feat this season.