Champions League for the last two weeks. Champions League for the next two weeks. But no Champions League this week. We are marooned, friends, in a continental lacuna. A midweek malaise. A— wait, what’s this? UEFA have tweaked the qualifying process for European competitions. GET IN.
And it’s good news for English sides. From 2018-19, the team that finishes fourth in the Premier League will be spared that potentially tricky two-legged qualifier at the beginning of the season. Instead, the top four teams of the top four leagues by coefficient — at the time of writing: England, Germany, Spain, Italy — will go straight into the group stage.
Trivia question: can you name the last English side to be eliminated in the qualifying rounds? Answer below.
Elsewhere, 22 other teams will automatically qualify for the group stage: the Champions League and Europa League holders, the top two from the fifth and sixth strongest leagues (currently France and Russia), and the champions of the leagues ranked seventh through 10th (Portugal, Ukraine, Belgium, Turkey). No nation can have more than five teams (though it’s not immediately clear what happens if, as is technically possible this season, the Europa and Champions League holders both miss out through the league).
The qualifying stages have been tweaked as well. Four of the remaining group places will be allocated via the “Champions Route”; the other two via the “League Route”. Full details are in the link below, but essentially there’s a series of rounds in which notionally stronger teams are gradually introduced. The novelty here, however, is that all teams eliminated from the Champions Route will get another shot in Europa League qualifying ...
... which, again, we’re not going to explain in full here. Suffice to say that England will get two places and two places only: since the top four in the league qualify for the groups automatically, along with the Europa League winners, there will be no dropping down from qualification. Somebody’s preseasons are about to get a whole lot easier.
Answer: Everton! In 2005-06. You may remember Pierluigi Collina, noted bald man and super ref, mysteriously disallowing a Duncan Ferguson goal for ... something Marcus Bent was doing on the other side of the penalty box. Oh, for VAR.