This Thursday in Monte Carlo, delegates of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Champions League holder Bayern Munich will take their seats for the draw for the group stages of the 2013-14 competition. Such is the predictability of things these days, not more than one of those traditionally strong European teams will be disappointed following proceedings because UEFA has ensured that as smooth a path as possible is laid on for the top seeds.
Manchester United, famously in 1999, became the first team to win the Champions League without previously winning their domestic league. From 1999-2000 on, however, teams were effectively put in control of their own seeding.
UEFA, since then, has utilized a club-specific coefficient for each team based on results achieved in European competition over the preceding five years, plus 20 percent of the whole association coefficient.
Those clubs, UEFA darlings in the biggest television markets, have things put in their favor come draw time. It is neither just nor fair. Too often the group stages of the Champions League are a procession for top-ranked clubs who stroll to qualification after 66 percent of the match days.
Complacent and under-performing 'elite' sides never find out what life is like for a team in pot 3 or 4 when they are only deserving of that place. For accuracy and fairness, UEFA must alter the criteria for working out which teams rank highest or else consider a free draw right from the off.
There is an insurance policy for the traditional elite which belies any notion of meritocracy for qualifying teams which stretches, even, to needlessly keeping sides representing the same national association apart until the quarterfinals. As national associations at the top end of UEFA's coefficient ranking are the ones which supply multiple Champions League teams, the favoritism in the draw is preserved.
"There has never been a club from pot four winning the Champions League," Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke bluntly pointed out when his side drew Real Madrid and Manchester City in the group stage of last year's competition.
To cut three or four seasons from the coefficient totals would be one place to start. The Champions League ranking, based on each qualified team's performances over the past five terms, simply does not accurately reflect the strongest clubs on the continent. It offers too easy a ride for those clubs who have banked 'coefficient credit' over a long number of seasons but whose progress has recently slowed.
Conversely, it fails to acknowledge in any significant way the teams which have recently come to the fore in European competition and have surpassed, in a contemporary sense, those clubs whose positions in the higher pots are safeguarded due to past performances.
Juventus, in its first season back in the Champions League, went as far as the quarterfinals. The club was eliminated only by the champions-elect, Bayern. And yet the Old Lady still finds herself wallowing in pot 3. That Juventus was beaten by Fulham in 2010 in the Europa League should not have as much of a bearing as it does. If teams were ranked only on their form in Europe one season prior, it would be a more accurate guide of who deserves to be where.
- Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund CEO
Results from three years ago in Europe should be obsolete. Manchester United and Arsenal would shoot down the ranking table while Dortmund, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain would come up. There would be no hiding place and no reliance on old results. It would be a meritocracy.
There were 14 teams which fared better than both Arsenal and Man United last season in Europe according to the UEFA ranking for 2012-13. A season prior, that figure was 10 for Arsenal. It was 28 for Manchester United. Arsenal, which is likely to scamper through the playoff round with victory over Fenerbahce, is in pot 1 for the draw. That is illogical. A team who qualified by the skins of its teeth should not be a pot 1 team.
There are not many historical examples of tennis players coming through the qualification rounds of a Grand Slam to feature in the main draw as one of the top-eight seeds. Not once in the past five seasons has Arsenal been among the top six teams in the Champions League in coefficient terms. And yet the Gunners are currently ranked sixth.
UEFA could also consider utilizing a free draw from the start which would ensure that the best team in Europe would face more potential hazards along the way than they presently do.
By eradicating the rule which stipulates that teams representing the same national association cannot face each other until the quarterfinals, UEFA would also give other national associations a fair crack at preventing Spain, England and Germany from dominating too heavily.
United is still heavily reliant on its run to the final in 2011 to buffer its coefficient standing. Since then the club has won a grand total of six Champions League matches in two seasons, two of which came against Otelul Galati. That form is not representative of a team which deserves top spot. It is a more accurate gauge of United's form to take its results over the past season or two and consider it rather than going back to a time when things were very different.
United is ranked as the fifth-best team in Europe based on the five-year standings. The club has not played well enough in the past two seasons to sustain that ranking. But even if it had scored no coefficient points in the last two seasons the club would still be in pot 2 such is the benefit conferred on it from its 2011 run. The club's exit at the group stage a year later is absorbed by its strong performances the season before.
There are also emerging teams knocking on the door. Nobody can be in any doubt that Borussia Dortmund is now one of the best teams in Europe. Placed in pot 4 last season due to its poor continental coefficient ranking prior to that, Dortmund went all the way to the final. The club eliminated Manchester City and Real Madrid, among others, but has still not built sufficient credit with UEFA to take its place as a pot 1 team.
The presence of these kinds of teams in the lower reaches of the draw creates a barrier that proves unjustifiably difficult to surmount. As usual, the 32 teams in the Champions League for this season are split into four pots, ranked in order. Teams in pot one should in theory be the ones who have been performing best in Europe. Those in pot four, then, should be teams whose records are not so great or are incomplete. But it is currently not working out like that.
If it is not going to reward those clubs who should be in the top end of the draw based on merit then UEFA may as well have a free draw for all qualified teams. It would ensure that the conventional handicapping would cease. If Manchester United, for example, is truly worthy of a top rank in the group stage then it can prove it the old fashioned way.
Currently, no matter what sort of dips in European form United and Arsenal, as well as Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona, may endure they will be able to absorb it and be assured of the best possible chance of qualification from the groups.
So long as clubs measure out two bad performances with three good ones over the course of five years they will remain buoyant. For clubs striving to the top it is proving hard to crack the hegemony.
Is Peter Staunton right? Should UEFA change the seeding system or scrap it entirely? Tell us your thoughts...