By Tony Attwood
Topping the group in the pre-Christmas Champions League is something that a lot of fuss was made about, until Arsenal did it this year, when the story suddenly changed to one in which it was pointed out that we could be drawn against opposition that was just as tough as if we had come second.
The list of possibles to come out of the hat this morning, as I am sure you will know, is Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Real Madrid, Porto, Sevilla: two from each of three leagues.
Bayern win the German league most seasons – they have won it 12 times out of the last 18 years, which is what makes it such a dull league. Leverkusen have never won the league but been runners’ up five times in the last 19 years.
In Portugal we find this
All the clubs below fifth place in this league are closer to relegation than to winning the league. So the two clubs from that country we could face are first and second.
Benfica has won their league for the last three seasons running. In the 10 years from 2003 to 2013 Porto won the league nine times.
As for Spain, Real Madrid are top of the Spanish league by a long way, Barcelona, seemingly endlessly mired in financial controversy both with the club and their players, are slipping behind. But since 2009 they have only once won the league in what is often a two horse race, occasionally a three horse race once – that in 2012. But this year they are striding away.
Sevilla, the other team we could face, are third. They have only won their domestic title once but have just won the Europa League three times running. Here are their current positions.
So was there any benefit in getting that final win and finding out that PSG screwed things up at the last? Certainly if we draw Real Mad or Munich we might well think not.
Except that the one benefit that has been talked about a lot is that we get to play the second match at home and so know exactly what we have to do. But there is also the statistic that 72% of the sides that get through the next round are group winners. Which might suggest that in addition to the fact that the stronger teams tend to win the group, there is something in having that second leg at home.
The figures get ever more weighted in favour of group winners when it comes to the finals. 81% of the finalists, and 77% of the winners since 2003/04 are clubs that came top of their group.
But does this really give group winners’ an advantage?
The answer probably is not. Going through the four knock out rounds of the competition to win the trophy requires not only an excellent team, but also a very strong squad – a squad which is unlikely not to be able to cope with the group stages. In other words if you have a squad that is strong enough to win the trophy you have a squad that is strong enough to win the group.
Not always of course – just over 19% of winners (that is to say around one every five years) did not win the group – but most of the time, yes it is enough.
In effect whether Arsenal had won the group or not this season, the only real difference is getting a slightly reduced chance of having to play one of the top teams in Europe. Indeed before the last few minutes of the games it looked like it was going to be PSG who won, because PSG got a 2-2 draw in London, while we only got a 1-1 draw in Paris – an odd vagary of the system. Had PSG won their last match they would have won the mini-table because they let in two goals away from home while Arsenal only let in one. Weird stuff.
So sometimes the strongest team doesn’t win the group. But they still have that minor disadvantage of having to play the second game away from home. And that’s about it.
Clearly if we are to win the Champions League we are going to have to take on the likes of Real Mad and Bayern M some time or other, so maybe we ought to get that out of the way at the start.
But before I leave this topic and wait for the draw, consider this. Since the introduction of the Europa League in 2009/10, 39% of the teams that dropped down from the Champions League have exited at the first possible opportunity, in the round of 32.
Then a further 29% have been knocked out in the round of 16, meaning nearly 70% of those teams don’t even make the quarter-finals.
Added to this four of the last five English teams to drop into the Europa League have not got beyond the round of 16 – meaning all that hassle of Thursday night football, trotting over to Wembley, and embarrassing defeats away might not really be worth the bother. But our noisy neighbours like to do it their own way.
Tales from Untold