The Women’s Champions League – the most confusing football tournament in the world?


by Andrew Crawshaw

You will probably know that Arsenal followed Manchester City in failing to advance to the ‘proper’ stages of the UEFA Women’s Champions League this year as we lost to Paris FC on penalties in LIncoping Sweden.  Manchester City failed to progress beyond this preliminary round in the previous two seasons.

A discussion in the pub before our Men’s Champions League match prompted me to write this piece.

The layout of the Women’s Champions League is certainly unique.  Eligible Confederations (as determined by the UEFA women’s association coefficients at the end of the 2021/22 season) are split into the following groups:-

  1. The top Six Confederations, France, Germany, Spain, England, Sweden, Czechia and Italy are all allowed to enter three teams
  2. The next ten highest ranked Confederations – Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Norway, Scotland, Belarus, Ukraine and Austria are allowed to enter two teams
  3. The remaining Confederations are allowed to enter their league champions only (for this year a total of 41 Confederations)

Russia are currently barred from the competition.

The season the competition is in four phases:

  • Round 1 – a series of four team mini tournaments each played at a single venue with matches on the 6th and 9th September
  • Round 2 – a knockout round of 24 clubs, 12 ties against a single opponent with a home and away matches to be played on 10/11 and18/19 October
  • Group stage round of 16 matches between 14/15 November and 30/31 January
  • Straight knockout quarter-finals and semi-finals
  • Final to be staged in Bilbao between 24 and 26 May (TBC)

So far it is reasonably straightforward but it doesn’t stay that way for long.

For rounds 1 and 2 there are two pathways – a champions route featuring the league winners of the lower-ranked associations and a league path featuring the second and third entrants from the higher-ranked associations.

The group stage comprises the holder, and the winners of the Leagues in the top Three Associations (this year Chelsea are added as Barcelona have a double qualification.  The 12 teams surviving the Round 2 matches are added to make up the 16 places.

As the third-placed club in England we were required to enter the competition in Round One – League path.  Our opponents were Paris FC (third in the French League), Lincopings (third-placed team in Sweden) and FC Kryvbas Rih (second in the Ukrainian League).  These matches were all played as one-off knockout games.  We beat Lincopings and Paris beat Kryvbas.  We then lost to Paris and Lincopings beat Kryvbas.  By coming second in our round 1 mini tournament we will carry 2 points forward towards our coefficient score for next season.  As we won’t lose anything from 2018/19 our score will go up for the start of the 2024/25 season.

The separation between the two paths continues into round two.  Had we beaten Paris FC we would have faced Wolfsburg and Manchester United who enter the competition at this stage have to face PSG.  These are vastly more difficult opponents than anyone qualifying via the Champions path which features the likes of Apollon (Cyprus), Valur (Iceland), Olimpia Cluj (Romania) and Glasgow City (Scotland).

In many cases, it is actually more difficult to qualify through rounds 1 and 2 than to progress into the quarter-finals.

The qualification this season was made far more complicated for teams like Arsenal who had a high proportion of players away at the World Cup (organised by FIFA who seem to be fighting a war with UEFA over who controls the biggest rights to football.  At times they seem to be like members of a family fighting over their inheritances following a death).  We had over half of our team involved in Australia and New Zealand till the end of the tournament on August 20.  Allowing only a week’s holiday left little more than 7 days together before we had to fly out to prepare for our round 1 games.  This was little short of criminal on the part of the tournament organisers.  There was absolutely no reason for his minimal time difference between the two tournaments.

Of course, the simple answer is to ensure that we don’t finish in third place in the WSL, although even coming second is no guarantee of a place in the last 16 as Manchester United may well find out.

I can understand UEFA wanting to give more of a chance to the teams representing the lower-ranked teams but I also feel that the current playing arrangement fails to give an even chance to all teams as it forces others to play against the higher-ranked teams artificially early in the tournament.

UEFA’s quandary is how to whittle 79 teams (if my maths is correct) down to a final two for the final.  In the men’s game they have got round this problem by dividing the competition into the Champions League and the Europa League ( and now the Europa Championship).  I would argue that the time is now right for a similar split in the Women’s game and the introduction of a Europa League type of tournament.  Say 32 teams in the Champions League and up to 48 in the Europa League (expanding to 64 as soon as possible with the growth of he women’s game.

I would say that the 32 places should be awarded to the four semi-finalists from the previous year’s Europa League plus the top three teams from the top 6 Confederations, the winners of the leagues from the remaining top 17 Confederations, and the second-placed teams from those last group as far as places permit.  The tournament could then proceed with four groups of four teams, each playing home and away with the top two from each group going into a knockout stage again with home and away matches.

The Europa League should again start with a group stage possibly in the form of mini-tournaments of three or four teams each playing everyone once.  Say 16 groups of either 3 or 4 teams possibly arranged on a geographical basis  The group winners would go forward to a knockout phase with home and away matches.

For interest here are the current top 20 highest-ranking teams The ranking points are a running total from the previous five seasons plus  a National Average from the same period (so we gain points from Chelsea’s past seasons for example)

  1. Barcelona (Spain) – 126.233
  2. Lyon (France) – 118.166
  3. Wolfsburg (Germany) – 104.333 
  4. PSG (France) – 97.166
  5. Byern Munich (Germany – 96.333)
  6. Chelsea (England) – 81.366
  7. Arsenal (England) – 56.366
  8. Manchester City (England) – 45.366
  9. Juventus (Italy) – 43.000
  10. Athletico Madrid (Spain) – 42.333
  11. Slavia Prague (Czechlosvakia) – 39.233
  12. Real Madrid (Spain) – 37.233
  13. Rosengård (Sweden) – 33.399
  14. St Pölten (Austria) – 30.050
  15. Brøndby (Denmark) – 29.650
  16. Glasgow City (Scotland) – 29.100
  17. Sparta Prague (Czechlosvakia) – 27.233
  18. Bilk Shymkent (Kazakhstan) – 25.700
  19. Hoffenheim (Germany) – 25.333
  20. Fortuna (Denmark) – 25.150

The top 17 Confederation scores are:-

  1. France – 80.833
  2. Germany – 76.666
  3. Spain – 71.166
  4. England – 61.833
  5. Italy – 35.000
  6. Sweden – 26.999
  7. Czechia – 26.166
  8. Denmark – 25.750
  9. Portugal – 24.000
  10. Netherlands – 22.000
  11. Norway – 20.500
  12. Scotland – 20.500
  13. Austria – 20.250
  14. Ukraine – 20.000
  15. Iceland – 18.500
  16. Belarus – 18.500
  17. Kazakhstan – 18.500

I know this is a somewhat dry post, but I just hope it helps some of you get your heads around a most confusing competition, which is now alas only of academic interest.  I just hope that both Manchester United and Chelsea have good runs in the competition this season in order to boost the Confederation scores which will form part of our coefficient for next season.

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