Everybody wants to be involved in European competitions after Christmas, but since the ‘demotion’ system from the Champions League to the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) was introduced, some teams find, and not to their liking, that they have to get their second helping of European football from the kiddie table.
Having finished third in their Champions League groups, or not even qualified for it to start with, they feel like big fish in the reduced pool of the Europa League, but the biggest of all never seem to take advantage of it. Going by the results they achieve (Valencia, Bayern, Milan, have graced the competition in recent years, and none have even come close to winning it), one has to feel that they enter the Europa League with less than a full heart, seeing it as an inconvenience and a waste of energy. This year it could happen to Juventus and Liverpool among other greats.
Well then, if they don’t take it seriously, more’s the pity, and that’s their loss, as the example of one Spanish team, Sevilla FC, can show. Sevilla have gone largely unnoticed in this year’s Champions League. They qualified for the second round after matchday 4, with two games to spare, but with a good number of the top guns unsure of their own qualification until the last day or two, Sevilla’s achievement went under the radar. Why? Because they had landed in a very soft group, with Stuttgart, Rangers and Unirea Urziceni for company. The question is: how come they got this easy group? The answer involves more than just luck: Sevilla were ranked as the 7th best club in the continent at the time of the draw.
Seventh? Sevilla? But they’ve never done anything in the Champions League. How come they’re ranked seventh? By winning the UEFA Cup two years running, in 2006 and 2007, that’s how.
At the September draw, teams are ranked according to their European performance in the previous five seasons, whichever of the two competitions you have entered (or, in some cases, both). Each team receives ranking points according to their victories, draws and rounds qualified for, and at the end of the season, they add those points to their total of the previous four years, in some cases mixing Champions League with UEFA Cup campaigns. In many occasions, a team can even get more coefficient points by winning the UEFA Cup than by winning the Champions League. In 2009 Shakhtar Donetsk got 29.3250 points while Barcelona were given 28.6624, and in 2007 the team who raked in the most points in the whole continent were Espanyol (35.2700), who didn’t even win a trophy (they lost the UEFA Cup final to Sevilla).
This might sound strange (imagine, say, Newcastle being able to keep their points from a second-division campaign if they’re promoted next season), but that’s the way it’s set up by the UEFA bureaucrats. That’s why, while Real Madrid were 13th in the draw and therefore not very far off from ending in Pot 3, courtesy of Real’s eliminations in the second round in each of the past five years, Sevilla were in Pot 1, guaranteed not to be drawn with any of the four English entrants, and, being Spanish, guaranteed not to get Real Madrid either. Add just a bit of luck, and they got a very comfortable group, which they won, in turn creating a chance for them to be even luckier by drawing a beatable second-placed team, CSKA Moscow, in the second round, with the second leg at home. By contrast, Atlético de Madrid, notionally a bigger club than Sevilla, didn’t have enough European points, they were sent to Pot 3, they were paired with Chelsea and Porto, and duly finished third.
A lot of thought is given by clubs to things like diets, training camps, advanced injury treatments and such, all looking for that extra 5% chance of success. Well, nerdy number-crunching like this might not be so flashy, but you only have to look at Sevilla’s example: they made their own luck in the draws by collecting points were they were available.
So, the big guns might not like slumming it out in the second competition, but the seed they could be planting with a proper Europa League run is worth reaping in the forthcoming years in the bigger stage. Imagine if, say, Everton get to the promised land of the Champions League, only to get Barcelona from Pot 1 and Inter Milan from Pot 2, leaving them with little chance of progressing. The story would be very different if, with a good Europa League campaign behind them, their coefficient puts them into Pot 2 and they get Barça, Rangers and Unirea instead. It’s a big difference, and I wonder whether clubs aspiring to cross the divide between those with chances of winning the big trophy and those without it are aware of finer points of the competition such as these.
By the way, with this year’s harvest of points so far, Sevilla are up to 5th in UEFA’s coefficient. Liverpool have gone down from 2nd to 6th. It’s not too late for the Reds to fix it from here to May, though. Juventus aren’t even in the top 20. The price of not trying now could be harder draws for years to come.
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