The Champion’s and Europa League

(prepare for another long blog)

There is more to Soccer/Football past the regular league action you see/hear about every weekend.

There are different versions of what is called the Champion’s League, an intra-continental club tournament (when I say clubs I mean teams, however in this sport the teams are far more than just teams, and they all have the letters “FC” or something similar in their language to establish it’s a Football Club, i.e. FC Dallas in Texas, Manchester United FC where the “FC” is silent). In fact, 5 continents/confederations use the name Champion’s League: Oceania Football Confed. (West Pacific Islands, New Zealand being the biggest nation involved.), Asian Football Confed. (Australia joined this group for more competition), Confed. of African Football, CONCACAF (North and Central America + the Caribbeans), and the biggest, most followed, UEFA (Europe).

South America calls theirs the Copa Libertadores, it is arguably the most watched, it regularly competes with the UEFA Champion’s League.

These intra-continental tournaments are a big deal, it means extra money for the clubs participating plus a chance to earn more honor and trophies, not to mention they can represent their country in some form or fashion.

Once again, I will keep it as simple as possible and stick to the UEFA and CONCACAF situations and rules.

How does one participate?

Back to the table:

The race for #4 is extremely tight right now in England

As you may notice, places 2-4 are highlighted a certain color, that color represents Champion’s League qualification. The three biggest UEFA nations: England, Spain and Germany, have 4 qualification spots each year. The next 3: Italy, France and Portugal have 3 spots open each year. While spots 1-3 (England, Spain, Germany) and 1-2 (Italy, France, Portugal) are automatically qualified into the main part of the tournament (begins with the Group Stage) the 3rd spot in Italy, etc and the 4th in England, etc. have to go through the 3rd round of preliminaries.

There are 3 rounds of preliminaries (play-offs) that the smaller nations in Europe compete (completing the 76-77 team roll call) in (July to early August) in order to get into the Group Stage, and those who make it but fail in the 3rd round are berthed into the next tournament, Europa League, more on that later.

Group Stage

This is the beginning of the main part of the tournament. The last 32 teams are drawn into groups of 4 and prepare gathering points to qualify to the Knockout Stage, the top 2 clubs of each group move on, the #3 team moves down to the Europa League.

Picture time:

Starting from mid-September until early December, the 32 teams will play the teams in their respective groups.

Bayern München (Munich) of Germany, Napoli of Italy, Man City of England and Villarreal of Spain have to follow the same points system as mentioned in the League, single-table format. Again, like in their respective leagues, they play each other twice, home and away. The +/- symbol means Goal Difference in this case. Bayern and Napoli join 14 other teams in the Knockout Stage (Last 16, starting on Feb 14!!) and Man City moves to the Europa League. In the group stages, no teams from the same nation are allowed to play each other.

Knockout Stage

Last 16:

Lyon of France vs Apoel of Cyprus (a huge feat for such a team to make it this far)

Leverkusen of Germain vs Barcelona of Spain

Zenit of Russia vs Benfica of Portugal

Milan of Italy vs Arsenal of England

Teams from the same nation can play each other during this stage.

So, the way it is scheduled, on the 14 and 15, 8 of the teams will play and the following week, 21-22, the other 8 will play. Then in March they play each other once again, the set-up is home and away. The difference is, aggregate (combined) goals.

In the first line, you see Lyon of France vs Apoel of Cyprus (a huge feat for such a team to make it this far). If Lyon lose to Apoel in Cyprus 2-1 and turned it around in France winning 2-1, the aggregate would be 3-3, thus introducing another rule: the away goal rule.

Usually, the away goals would announce the winner, if Apoel and Lyon drew in Cyprus 1-1 and then drew 2-2 in France, Apoel would move to the next round for having 2 away goals, but the original scenario shows a complete stalemate. Extra time would be implemented.

No matter what, if the first match was a draw (same with the group stage matches and regular league matches), 90 minutes signals the end. If it’s still a draw, including the away goals, by the end of the second match in the knockout stages (last 16, quarter-finals and semis all play two games), then an extra 30 minutes will be added, with 15-minute halves, making it a total of 120 minutes. If for some reason there is still no winner, a penalty shootout commences.

5 players on each side are picked to take a shot against the goal keeper and whoever has the better of the possible 5 shots wins.

With that in mind, the final is a one chance thing, at the very end of May, when all of the other leagues have finished their season, everyone in Europe turn their TVs on to this, the Champion’s League final, hosted in a different city across Europe (last year, Wembley stadium in London, this year, Allianz in Munich, Germany).

The most successful clubs are Real Madrid, who’s won it 9 different times since the inception in the 50s and AC Milan with 7. Barcelona are the current champions, winning it twice in three years.

What is the Europa League?

Some people, to simply explain it, is the 2nd place tournament in Europe. As I mentioned earlier, certain teams from 2 different parts of the Champion’s League will come down to join others in the Europa, same rules apply only there is simply a lot more teams playing. The group stage consists of 64 teams, the knockout round starts with the last 32, the final is also hosted in a random stadium across Europe (last year, Dublin, Ireland) and it is the weekend before the Champion’s League Final. No teams from the same nation can play each other during the group stage.

Where does the MLS fit into this?

In the CONCACAF, it is obviously a much smaller competition, only 4 groups are in the group stages, however the same rules apply, regarding points and qualifying for the knockout round. One big difference is the final is staying like the knockout round, a home and away series.

Because of the East and West division, and the fact that Canada is part of the league, the MLS has a different way to qualify:

1) Much like the other leagues, the MLS awards the team with the most points something called the Supporter’s Shield, this team automatically qualifies for the group stage.

2) Again, like the other leagues, the MLS has their own domestic tournament between the professionals and the “part-timers” called the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (obviously Canada is not involved), this earns a spot in the preliminaries.

3-4) The MLS has their own play-offs, to determine the “true” winner of the MLS, earning the MLS Cup at the end of it all, the winner gains a berth into the group stage, the runner-up, is set for the preliminaries.

5) That is the 4 American spots, the Canadian teams have their own small tournament to determine who’s the best in Canada, that team is set for the preliminaries, taking the 5th spot for the MLS.

Obviously, there’s a risk of say, Toronto FC becoming an MLS Cup finalist in the least, or gaining the Supporter’s Shield (hasn’t happened yet, but still) the next sport goes to who’s next best, same for say LA Galaxy who has won the Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup last season.

Last year, the 2010/2011 season, saw Real Salt Lake almost set a record, losing in the final by one single goal (2-3 on aggregate) in the very final match.

FC Dallas has also set a record, being the first MLS team to beat a Mexican team IN Mexico, helping to break down that mental hurtle we’ve carried for years.

I heard about a World Club Cup?

Yes, the FIFA Club World Cup! It is hosted in Japan every December, the different winners of each continental Champion’s League plays each other, meaning one from Africa, one from Asia, South America, etc. The last 4 winners have been from Europe: Barcelona of Spain, Internazionale (Inter) Milan of Italy, Barcelona and Manchester United of England. Real Salt Lake missed their chance in playing this by a single goal.

Thank you for putting up with another long post, there are only a couple more “rules” threads and then I’ll get on to history and players and such.

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