Part 2: What reform of UEFA club competitions might look like

The UEFA Champions League trophy (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
The UEFA Champions League trophy (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images) /
UEFA reforms Part 2
UEFA club competitions like the Europa League are undergoing an overhaul by the UEFA Executive Committee. (Photo by OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images) /

UEFA is entering a crucial week in which the Executive Committee will debate reforms to their club competitions. It is possible that approval will be given and major changes instituted beginning with the 2024-25 season.

The changes could be dramatic or additional debate might be necessary. We’ll know more later this week.

In Part 2 of the two-part series, I continue with analysis of the possible changes to the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, and Europa Conference League. (To see Part 1, click here.)

My predictions reflect what has been made public, changes made in recent years, as well as conversations I have had with people with close knowledge of the situation.

No more dropouts following league phase

Teams that finish third in the Champions League group stage are relegated to the Europa League knockout round. This season, the same procedure was used for third place teams in the Europa League group stage; they were sent to the Europa Conference League.

In UEFA’s initial proposal for the new format, there would be no dropouts to lower-tier competition for the knockout rounds. I think this will remain so.

As things stand according to the original press release, the top eight teams following the league phase will go directly to the last 16, with teams finishing 9th through 24th playing a knockout round playoff (the new round added to the Europa League this season and the new Conference League). The eight winners of the playoff will join the top eight in the round of 16. The bottom 12 teams from the league phase will be completely eliminated.

While I have heard slight rumblings, I see UEFA sticking to the original plan. This could still be moved around, but with the number of teams making the knockout playoffs, I do not think UEFA can justify sending teams down a competition following the league phase.

Champions League preliminary round to be abolished

This may seem like a minor detail, but make no mistake, this will make a difference for four teams and when they start their season. This has not been openly discussed, so I am making this assumption on pure speculation.

Since the 2018/19 season, UEFA has had a preliminary round featuring champions of the four lowest-ranked national associations playing a three-game mini tournament. One of the participating leagues hosts this playoff typically played in late June to kick off the qualifying rounds. The winner of this pre-qualifying tournament enters the main rounds of Champions League qualifying while the other three teams enter Europa Conference League qualifying.

With an extra Champions League league phase place granted to another domestic champion via the so-called Champions Path of qualifying, this preliminary round won’t be required anymore. This goes with one of my previous points where two league champions will take the place of the proposed coefficient places. If I am indeed correct and two more champs are added to the league phase, that is two fewer teams in this part of qualifying. So, goodbye preliminary round.

Teams losing in UCL qualifying will move to Europa League

Another seemingly smaller detail that gives more chances to smaller teams, UEFA will allow all teams that lose in Champions League qualifying to get a chance in the Europa League at some point.

Currently, along with the teams that fall in the preliminary round, the teams that are eliminated in the first qualifying round (applicable to the Champions Path only) also enters the Conference League, joining the three teams from the previous round.

I can foresee these 18-20 teams taking part in the Europa League qualifying as a way of giving them an extra opportunity. They still may drop to the Conference League, but not before going through at least one round in the former.

It is worth noting that in the previous three-year cycle, all teams that fell in Champions League qualifying had a shot in the Europa League. This is something I can easily see being brought back.

Europa League will have extra qualifying round

One of the changes for this season’s Europa League was the removal of the first two qualifying rounds. The teams that would play in these rounds now take part in Conference League qualifying.

However, one source notes two major changes expected. One is that there will be at least 37 domestic champions involved in a league phase of a UEFA club competition in 2024 (an increase of four). The other is that there will be at least 33 cup winners available for the Europa League (increase of 18). Presently, just the cup winners of the top 15 national associations play in the competition, with the others playing in the new competition’s qualifying round.

To accommodate these changes (under the assumption that the idea still occurs), I think another round of qualifying will be added in the Europa League. It would go hand in hand with my previous point about losers in Champions League qualifiers ending up here. With more cup winners entering, it would be logical to believe another round of qualification is necessary.

Europa League playoffs to maintain champions/non-champions path

According to a contact participating in the discussions, there is very little information on how the Europa League and Conference League will look in 2024. Outside of the fact that both competitions are supposed to feature 36 teams each in the league phase, not much else can be said.

Yet, I have already drawn a few conclusions about how things could turn out, largely based on what has been seen in the past.

In recent iterations, the Europa League had two separate paths throughout qualifying, similar to Champions League. However, the reformed playoff round is likely to have a combination of domestic champions (originally in Champions League), domestic runner ups (also from Champions League) and cup winners that did not automatically earn a spot in the Europa League group phase.

I predict UEFA will forego this change used in this season’s tournament (which will also be used in the next two). The goal is to ensure more domestic champions and cup winners in the league phase of the second tier competition.

To go with this, the current playoff round format with the combined paths is slightly complicated. The process of pairing the teams is quite fascinating to say the least. To make it easier on everyone involved, it would be best to revert to different paths throughout.

UEFA will strive to appeal to ‘Big 5’ leagues

Finally, I will end the same way I started. This is a hunch of mine, given everything I have read and listened to recently.

Sky Sports’ Kaveh Solhekol pointed out recently that UEFA brought up the idea of coefficient places in the Champions League to appease the biggest clubs from the bigger leagues as a safety net. I do not think these coefficient places will occur. However, that will not stop UEFA from making some change to benefit the wealthiest clubs from the biggest leagues.

Prize money might not change as much as European leagues may hope. In a presentation last year, the organization suggested adjusting the prize money slightly and making solidarity payments larger for clubs that seldom make a league phase. I suspect this is something they might not be able to influence should they get their way on other issues, especially the lack of coefficient places in the Champions League.

Another possible small change is having the big 5 leagues’ representatives in the Conference League start at the league phase automatically, instead of going through one round of qualifying as they do now (currently no team automatically qualifies for the tournament’s group stage).

Tuesday will prove to be a crucial day for the future of UEFA’s club competitions. That is irrespective of whether the complete format is officially finalized. What is known is that there has been a lot of back-and-forth conversations over the last few years about this.

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The decisions taken Tuesday or thereafter will reflect the talks and ideas from all parties involved. Who will be most satisfied with the changes remains to be seen, but one way or another, some will benefit from the changes while others not so much.