2014 SPLstats Quiz Answers

Here are the answers to the 2014 SPLstats quiz questions.  The questions can be found here.

 

Round 1 – The 2013/14 Season

1. Jonny Hayes
2. Ikechi Anya
3. Frazer Wright
4. Queen of the South
5. 1256
6. Billy Mckay and Greg Tansey
7. Lee Robinson
8. Adam and Billy King & Dan and Filip Twardzik.
9. Henri Anier (v Aberdeen), Kenny McLean (v Hibs) & Steven Thompson (v Hearts)
10. 1985/86.

 

 

Round 2 – Name the Manager

1. Ivano Bonetti
2. Ivan Golac
3. Marcio Maximo
4. Franck Sauzee
5. Dr Jozef Venglos
6. Claude Anelka
7. Ebbe Skovdahl
8. Harri Kampman
9. Valdas Ivanauskas
10. Sergei Baltacha

 

 

 

Round 3 – Laws of the Game

1. 17
2. 8 feet (2.44m)

3. Shinpads and boots/footwear
4. Retake the kick-off, because the ball must go forward.
5. 2 yards (2m)
6. He should award the goal.
7. A penalty kick.
8. 6
9. A goal-kick.
10. Serious foul play, violent conduct, spitting, denying a goalscoring opportunity with a tackle/challenge, denying a goal/goalscoring opportunity by handling the ball, foula and abusive language, two yellow cards.

 

 

Round 4 – Pointless

These questions will be converted into Sporcle quizzes.

 

 

Round 5 – Stadium Quiz

1. Borough Briggs
2. Links Park

3. Pittodrie
4. Forthbank
5. Broadwood
6. Palmerston
7. Shielfield
8. Falkirk Stadium
9. Dens Park
10. Fir Park

 

 

Round 6 – Scottish Clubs in Europe

1. Greenock Morton (v Chelsea)
2. Inverness CT & Ross County
3. Rot-Weiss Essen
4. Falkirk & Livingston
5. Barcelona
6. Danny Lennon
7. Dunfermline Athletic & Kilmarnock
8. Feyenood
9. Jamie Murphy (Motherwell v Flamurtari)
10. 20

Round 7 – Name that Player

1. Ryan McGowan
2. Ray Montgomerie

3. Daniel Majstorovic
4. Madjid Bougherra
5. Lee Naylor
6. Maurice Ross
7. Tom Boyd
8. Prince Buaben
9. Ian Ferguson
10. Brian Irvine

 

 

 

Round 8 – Missing Men

1. John Baird
2. Roman Bednar

3. Callum Davidson
4. Jamie McAllister
5. Ryan Jack
6. John Greig
7. Joe Jordan
8. Chris Sutton
9. Garry Kenneth
10. Scott Brown

 

 

 

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2014 SPLstats Quiz Questions

The second annual SPLstats Quiz night took place on Friday 16th May.  23 teams participated and the eventual winners were the STV Sport team, who very kindly donated their prize money to charity.

I’d like to thank Scotland’s Premier Oddsmaker, McBookie for their kind sponsorship of the event, which allowed me to secure an excellent venue in the shape of Firhill.  I’d also like to think David MacDonald of the Pie and Bovril forum for his very generous contribution to the prize fund, money which will now go to a very deserving charity.

For those of you who missed out on attending, here’s an opportunity to see how you would have got on.  Answers will be posted later.

 

Round 1 – The 2013/14 Season

1. Who scored the first league goal in the SPFL?
2. Which player made his Scotland debut against Belgium in September?
3. Who scored St Johnstone’s goal in their memorable 1-0 win away to Rosenborg?
4. Which side knocked holders St Mirren out of the League Cup?
5. Fraser Forster broke Bobby Clark’s top flight clean sheet record. How many minutes did he go without conceding a goal in the Premiership?
6. Which players missed a penalty in the League Cup final penalty shootout?
7. Raith Rovers beat Rangers 1-0 in the Challenge Cup final. Which member of their victorious side also won the same trophy last season?
8. Which two sets of brothers appeared in this season’s Scottish Premiership?
9. Three players scored inside the first minute of a Premiership match this season. Can you name two of them?
10. Neither of this season’s major domestic cup finals contained a team from Glasgow. When was the last time that this happened?

 

 

Round 2 – Name the Manager

This was a picture round.  Click the link below to download the quiz sheet.

Manager Sheet

 

 

Round 3 – Laws of the Game

1. How many laws are there?
2. What height should the crossbar be?

3. The laws of the game require a player to have five pieces of basic equipment. His shirt, shorts and socks are three – what are the other two?
4. A player attempts to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper directly from kick-off, but misjudges it and kicks it into the net without touching another player. What should the referee award?
5. At a throw-in, what distance must a defending player be from the point where the throw is taken?
6. The attacking team score a goal, but before play restarts the referee realises that the defending team had an extra player on the pitch. What should he award?
7. A defender standing outside the penalty area picks up a water bottle and throws it at a attacker standing inside the penalty area. What should the referee award?
8. How many substitutes are a team allowed to make in an international friendly?
9. An attacking player kicks the ball straight into the opponents’ net from a drop ball. What should the referee award?
10. There are seven offences listed in the laws of the game for which a player should be sent off. Can you name any 4 of them?

 

 

Round 4 – Pointless

Round 4 was loosely based on the TV show Pointless, where the questions have multiple correct answers and aim of the game is to find the most obscure correct answer possible. Unlike the TV show, I did not survey 100 people before the quiz, so the aim for the teams was to choose a correct answer which none of the other teams in the room picked. 1 point was awarded if you were the only team to give your answer, half a point was awarded if two or three teams gave an answer, and no points were awarded if more than three teams gave an answer.

This twist added an element of psychology to the round. If everyone was going for an obscure answer, then that might mean that the most obvious answer would be the best one to go for. But if everyone thought that way, then nobody would score any points.

The 10 questions are listed below – I will eventually convert these into 10 Sporcle quizzes so that you can have a go at getting all the right answers.

1. Name a player who has been awarded the SPFA Player of the Year.
2. Name a country who Scotland have faced at a World Cup or a European Championship finals (I’m looking for the name the country had at the time we faced them, not a modern name).
3. Name a manager who has won the Scottish Cup since 1990.
4. Name any opposing player who has scored against Celtic at Celtic Park this season.
5. Name any club who have played in a European final in Scotland.
6. Name any player with 50 or more caps for Scotland.
7. Name any club who have won at Ibrox since Ally McCoist took over at Rangers, or at Celtic Park since Neil Lennon took over at Celtic (excludes wins on penalties).
8. Name any Scottish player who has played in a Champions League knockout stage match (1992/93 onwards, only matches which took place after the group stage).
9. Name any player who has been an unused sub in a Scottish Cup final since 2010.
10. Name any player who scored 2 or more goals in a single Scottish Premiership match in the 2013/14 season.

 

 

Round 5 – Stadium Quiz

This was another picture round – click the link below to download the quiz sheet.

Stadium Quiz Sheet

 

Round 6 – Scottish Clubs in Europe

1. Which Scottish club played their only European away match without having to leave the island of Great Britain?
2. Which two teams from this season’s Premiership have never played in Europe?
3. Hibs were the first Scottish team to play in the European Cup. Who were their first opponents?
4. Which two Scottish clubs are unbeaten at home in European competition?
5. Which club have been the most frequent opposition for Scottish clubs in Europe?
6. Raith Rovers famously led 1-0 at half time away to Bayern Munich. Who scored their goal?
7. Which two non-city clubs have made it to the semi-final of a European competition.
8. Which side beat Celtic in the European Cup final in 1970?
9. Who was the last player to score a hat-trick for a Scottish club in a European match?
10. How many different Scottish clubs have participated in European competition?


 

 

Round 7 – Name that Player

This was a picture round – click the link below to download the question sheet.

Scottish Cup Player Sheet

 

 

Round 8 – Missing Men

Another round with a question sheet – click the link below to download it.

Missing Men Sheet

 

 

The UEFA Nations League Explained

The 54 UEFA members recently passed a unanimous vote to launch a new tournament called the UEFA Nations League from 2018 onwards.  The intention of the tournament is to replace meaningless international friendlies with some form of competitive football, with the aim of boosting interest from supporters and commercial partners alike.  The tournament is explained at some length on the UEFA website, but I hope to make things a bit clearer by taking you through how it will work in practice.

The format has not been completely finalised yet, but the plan is to split the countries into 4 large groups based on their UEFA coefficients (or some other ranking) and then to further subdivide these groups into leagues containing 3 or 4 teams.  There will be promotion and relegation between the four levels at the end of each campaign, while the four group winners in the top league will compete in a “Final Four” tournament to decide the overall champions.  In addition to being a standalone tournament, this would also provide nations with a second opportunity to qualify for the European Championships (and possibly the World Cup).

It’s much easier to follow things by looking at exactly how the tournament will work in practice, so that’s what I’ll do here.  This will be based on the current UEFA coefficients and standings – obviously things will have changed in that respect four years down the line, but it should give an idea of how it all works.  Some details have not yet been fully explained by UEFA yet, so where that’s the case I’ll make a best guess about how things will happen.

 

Nations Cup Group Allocation

The 54 sides will be split into four groups of varying sizes.  It appears from the UEFA site that the top two groups will have 12 teams, the third group will have 14 teams and the bottom group will have 16 teams.  The teams will presumably be allocated to those groups based on their positions in the UEFA coefficient table (which is currently used to seed the European Championship qualifiers).

Based on the current rankings, the four divisions would be as follows:

Group 1 (12 teams): Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ukraine, France, Croatia.

Group 2 (12 teams): Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Serbia, Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Norway.

Group 3 (14 teams): Slovakia, Romania, Austria, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Scotland, Finland, Latvia, Wales, Bulgaria, Estonia, Belarus, Iceland.

Group 4 (16 teams): Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania, Moldova, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Malta, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar.

 

Each group will then be split up into smaller leagues.  In Groups 1 and 2, the teams would be split into 4 groups of 3.  In Group 3, there will be 2 groups of 3 and 2 groups of 4.  In Group 4 there will be 4 groups of 4. UEFA have yet to make it clear exactly how the make-up of these leagues will be decided, but I assume that it will be a simple seeded draw.  Initially, the seeding will presumably be based on the UEFA coefficients, but in future tournaments it could instead be based on the league positions in the previous Nations League.

Assuming that is the case, the groups could look something like this:

Groups

 

Nations Cup Tournament

The sides in each group will face each other home and away between September and November 2018.  There are six matchdays in total, so the countries in groups of 3 will have two free matchdays in which they can play friendlies against non-European sides (or another European team who are also free).

In order to make it more like a “real life” example, I have simulated outcomes for each individual group with weights based on UEFA coefficients (an imperfect measure, but the best I have).  This means that nations with higher coefficients were more likely to win their group, but it left open the possibility of upsets.  This is more helpful than simply assuming everything will go by seeding because it allows me to more easily explore the European Championship qualification aspect later.

Here’s how the simulated groups finished:

Final

Based on this outcome, the Final Four tournament in June 2019 would feature England, Italy, Ukraine and Germany.  Meanwhile, France, Croatia, Spain and Greece would be relegated from Group 1 and would be replaced by Israel, Belgium, Slovenia and Denmark.  Promotion and relegation between Groups 2, 3 and 4 would work in the same way.  This format should allow lots of movement between the groups – even the best teams could find themselves relegated out of the top group with just a couple of dodgy results.

 

European Championship

The European Championship qualification will then kick off in March 2019, and will be played over 10 matchdays, finishing in November 2019.  The countries will be divided into 10 groups – 4 groups of 6 and 6 groups of 5, with seeding based on the UEFA coefficient as normal.

Again, I simulated a draw based on the current coefficients:

Groups

Every side will face every other side in their group home and away and the top two from each group will qualify for the European Championships.  However, unlike during the current set up, the remaining places will not be allocated via a play-off of third place sides, but instead via a set of play-offs based on the Nations Cup finishes.

Here are my simulated group finishes, again using a weighting system based on the UEFA coefficient:

Finishes

The 20 sides highlighted in yellow have all sealed their places at Euro 2020.

 

Nations League Play-offs

The remaining 4 places at Euro 2020 will be decided by the Nations League play-offs, with one side qualifying from each group.  Within each group, the 4 play-off spots will go to the highest placed sides who have not already qualified for the Euros.  These 4 teams will play semi-finals and then a final (all as one-off matches rather than two-legged ties) in March 2020 and the winners will qualify for the European Championships.

If we look at the tables for each of the Nations League divisions from earlier, and highlight the already qualified sides in yellow then we can see how these play-offs will work.

Playoff

In Group 1, Ukraine are the only league winners who did not qualify for the Euros, and would take their place in the play-offs.  They would be joined by Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were the only second placed side.  The final two spots will go to whichever two sides out of France, Croatia and Greece had the best league record.  Therefore the Group 1 play-offs might see Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and France come together to play for a single spot at the Euros.

In Group 2, there are only 4 sides who have not qualified for Euro 2020 through the traditional qualifying route.  Therefore all 4 of these sides (Denmark, Serbia, Sweden & Turkey) will face off in the play-offs for the spot at the Euros.  Incidentally, the explanation on the UEFA website suggests that if there was a case where there were fewer than 4 sides who had not already qualified, the play-off spots would go to sides from a lower division, though the exact mechanism for doing that is not fully explained.

For Group 3, the play-off places would go to league winners Finland and Scotland, and then to the two sides with the best records out of Belarus, Iceland and Wales.  Presumably the results against the fourth placed side would be removed when comparing the records of teams in different sized groups.

Finally, in Group 4 we will see all four league winners progress to the play-offs.  That would mean that Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland and Georgia would get to play-off for a spot at the European Championships.  This is obviously slightly controversial because it means a “lesser” side will qualify for the tournament, but the counterargument for that would be that the extra exposure and the tournament experience may benefit the nation in the longer term.

 

Will It Work?

I think the idea of replacing friendly matches with competitive fixtures is a great one, and I think the concept of an international league with promotion and relegation is really good in theory.  For a country like Scotland, it is likely to be a fairly interesting concept, because with the cut-throat nature of the promotion and relegation we are likely to yo-yo around between Groups 2 and 3, with some infrequent visits to the top and bottom groups.

The addition of the European Championship qualifying spot ensures that countries are likely to take the tournament seriously – it could be crucial to have a fall-back option if you mess up in qualifying.  The way the play-off places are distributed appears to favour a big fish in a small pond – a strong nation who finds themselves relegated into Group 3 or Group 4 would have an easier route to qualification than if they were in a higher division.  However it is worth noting that the sides who do qualify in this way are also likely to be promoted for the following campaign and thus will not be able to take advantage of this route again.

The qualification system works nicely for Euro 2020, which has no single host.  However it would have to be tweaked for future tournaments if the host nation(s) received an automatic qualifying spot.  It has also been mooted that a couple of Europe’s World Cup places could be allocated via this system, though that would require approval from FIFA.  Exactly how this would work has not been made public yet, but it was suggested that the World Cup route would be for sides in the top two groups only.  With the Nations League not starting until 2018, the first World Cup which could feasibly use such a system would be 2022, so there is plenty of time to come up with something.

Overall, I’m cautiously optimistic about what has been announced so far.  There are a few issues which will have to be addressed, but if they can do that properly the tournament should provide an additional source of competitive international football.  The bigger nations have another trophy to play for, the middle sized nations (like Scotland) have plenty of meaningful matches in battles for promotion and relegation, and the minnows get to have a crack at the European Championships.

Post-Split Fixtures 2013/14

With the top 6 decided at a relatively early stage, the SPFL now have the unenviable task of deciding the post-split fixtures.  There has yet to be any announcement about when these fixtures will be released, but hopefully it is as early as possible to give supporters more time to make travel plans.  The only conceivable reason for a delay would be to wait and see whether Hibs are dragged into the relegation battle, which may alter the bottom six fixture scheduling and could affect the choice of TV games.

There is always a bit of controversy surrounding the fixtures, and this year appears to be particularly complex, especially for the top six.  The ideal scenario is that each club will have 19 home matches and 19 away matches, and that they will finish the season with two home and two away matches against each other side in their half of league.  However this very rarely comes to fruition, and yet again this season we have a situation where compromises will have to be made to even up the fixture list.

 

Top 6

Top6dueThe table on the right shows the number of home games each of the top six sides are due in order to take them to the “perfect” tally of 19 homes and 19 aways.  However, as you can see four of the six sides are “due” three home matches, which means one of the sides is bound to miss out and will end up finishing the season with just 18 home matches and 20 away from home.

The table also shows the teams who each side are due to play at home so that they would have faced each top six opponent twice at home and twice away.  Again, you can see that it is not practical to maintain an even home/away fixture split for each side.  That means that some fixtures will have to be “switched”, and some clubs will face a third away trip to a particular away venue.

In my opinion, Aberdeen will be the side who will lose out by having just 18 home games this season.  They have benefited from having 20 home games and just 18 away matches on three previous occasions (2005/06, 2007/08 and 2009/10) and have only had 18 homes and 20 aways on one occasion (2004/05), while none of the other top 6 sides have an imbalance in their favour.  In the interests of balance, it would therefore seem entirely fair that the Dons get the extra away match this season.

The only counter-argument to that is the fact that the Dons are involved in the battle for 2nd place, and that they would be disadvantaged by having fewer home matches than Motherwell.  However it should be noted that the Dons have the best away record in the division (outside of Celtic) and may not be too affected as a result.  If keeping fixture balance between sides battling for a particular league place is considered more important than evening out historical imbalances, then the logical conclusion would be that Celtic are given the extra away game given that they will have nothing to play for.  However, there was a similar situation in 2011/12, when Celtic had the title all but wrapped up while St Johnstone were in a European battle, and it was Saints who were given the extra away game in order to even things out after having been given 20 homes and 18 aways in 2001/02.

Some fixtures will also have to be “switched” to ensure that every side other than the Dons end up with 19 homes and 19 aways.  Aberdeen still need an 18th home match from somewhere, while Inverness need an extra away game, so it makes sense to send John Hughes’ side to Pittodrie for a third time.  Celtic need to find an extra home game from somewhere, while Motherwell need an additional away trip, so Stuart McCall and his side may face a third trip to Celtic Park – this would also even things up after Celtic visited Fir Park three times last season.  Finally, Dundee Utd need an extra home game, while St Johnstone need an extra away game, so Saints could be sent to Tannadice again – this would even things up after Dundee Utd visited McDiarmid Park three times in 2011/12.

Based on that logic, this is how I see the fixtures shaping up in the top six.  I would also expect to see the Aberdeen v Motherwell and Inverness v Dundee Utd matches to be scheduled for the final day of the season to increase the chances of having a “winner takes all” match for TV.

Top6fixtures

Bottom 6

As you might have worked out, if the make up of Bottom6duetop six requires one side to have 18 homes and 20 aways, then that means that someone in the bottom six gets the benefit of 20 games at home and just 18 away.  The table on the right shows who is due what after the split.

The battle for the relegation play-off spot currently involves Killie, Partick Thistle, Ross County and St Mirren, but Hibs could still be sucked into it if their form doesn’t improve.  That leaves Hearts as the only side who will have absolutely nothing to play for post-split.  Ideally, you would like to give them the extra home game to avoid any controversy, but that would mean giving them four home matches after the split, and would also disrupt the balance of fixtures in the relegation play-off battle (assuming the Edinburgh derby won’t be switched).

The most straightforward option would be to give Hibs the extra home game.  This would mean that every pair of clubs would be balanced in terms of having two homes and two aways against each other.  Hibs would be handed a slight advantage in the relegation play-off battle, but given their home record (only four wins so far this season), it’s hardly a gamechanger.  If Hearts were to be given an extra home game, the most likely way of achieving this would be to send St Mirren to Tynecastle for a third time, have either Killie or Partick Thistle visit Paisley again and then have Hibs make a third visit to either Rugby Park or Firhill.

Assuming the SPFL choose the former option by giving Hibs the extra game, here are my predicted fixtures for the bottom six.  It’s hard to decide what fixtures will be chosen for the final day, because it’s hard to predict right now which sides will be involved at the end.

Bottom6fixtures

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.