Saturday, July 4, 2009

Champions League: Off We Go Again

Hardly a month has passed since Barcelona's triumph in Rome, and Europe's best are back at it again. Well, maybe not the "best." The revised format for Champions League qualifying has the continent's diminutive champions taking the field first. The first round kicked-off Tuesday with matches between the champions of Malta, Andorra, Montenegro and San Marino, allowing Europe's longest of long shots to enjoy a moment in the spotlight.

UEFA has always faced a delicate balancing act to ensure that the Champions League includes both "champions" and top teams such as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Liverpool who do not win their leagues, but are clearly among the continent's best. This year 22 teams qualified automatically for the group stages, up from 16 in previous seasons. Champions of the the top 13 countries will automatically head to the group stages, three more than last season. This change is welcome news to the champions of Turkey, Ukraine and Belgium. The inclusion of six second-place teams remains the same, but now the top three third-place squads (Chelsea, Sevilla, AC Milan) do not have to navigate the qualifying rounds.

The qualifying path for the remaining 10 slots splits the field into champions and non-champions, guaranteeing five more domestic champions will join the Champions League proper. For the non-champions, they'll be facing one another for the five remaining slots, meaning the likes of Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Fiorentina are more likely to be drawn together. Ultimately the Champions League group stages will be include 18 domestic champions and 14 non-champions.

UEFA's efforts to include more domestic champions adds some needed variety to the competition. Teams from England, Italy and Spain have comprised every finalist since the Porto-Monaco Final in 2004. While the latter stages of the tournament will likely remain dominated by teams from those nations, the outsiders now have a more manageable path to Madrid.

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