UEFA club tournaments resume with the first round of the group stages this week. Europe’s prime club competition, the UEFA Champions League (UCL), is the first one to launch its campaign in a peculiar season, in which the World Cup in Qatar later this year not only disrupts the usual calendar but may cause unprecedented challenges regarding fixture congestion and other potential contingency issues, as well.
Which are the clubs with the biggest chance to lift the UCL trophy in Istanbul in June? Can PSG or Manchester City collect their first ever title, or Real Madrid extend their record and add a 15th UCL trophy to their cabinet? Our chart below shows the UCL group participants and their current UEFA coefficient. Our overview also reflects on how clubs’ recent major transfers and experience amassed in the tournament throughout the years may boost their potential.
World Cup disruption
While club competitions usually dominate the football calendar from September to July, the 2022 FIFA World Cup introduces a new twist to the dynamics of national team and club football this season. Historically scheduled during the summer months, the upcoming World Cup in Qatar has been moved to the latter part of the year as the host country’s summer climate of regular 40+ Celsius degree days would not be suitable for football in the traditional World Cup slots.
European club football will perhaps face the most pressing consequences, with national team games cutting most leagues’ season in half. Just as domestic leagues had to adjust their schedules, so did UEFA’s flagship competition, the UCL which kicks off tonight, in addition to the UEFA Europa League and UEFA Europa Conference League. It remains to be seen whether the change in calendar will have any effect on the two tournaments’ – World Cup and UCL – demand, but it is fair to expect the World Cup to generate massive attention as the projected total TV audience is in the range of five billion, above half of the world’s population. For a direct comparison with the UCL: on average 400 million spectators tune in for a Champions League final, while the 2018 World Cup final attracted 517 million viewers. Even though they do not take place at the same time, these figures suggest that the World Cup is more popular than the UCL, which might create interesting dynamics during the season. Firstly, it will be interesting to understand how audience demand will be affected by the increase in number of premier competitions: will they be fatigued by the number of games as the end of the season rolls around? Or will more people be drawn to the sport following the World Cup, positively impacting club games played afterwards?
The second peculiar impact may originate from players’ behaviour, who could prioritise their national team over their club performance during the season. Some player transactions were already affected, as several players opted against a transfer this past summer window, trying to ensure their places in their nation's World Cup squad. Also, immediately preceding the tournament, players would perhaps be less willing to exert themselves physically in fear of an injury.
Finally, the sheer volume and congestion of games might also negatively impact players’ health. With the World Cup in winter, players will have more games and travel in the middle of the season in addition to the already jam-packed domestic and continental schedule, which will have many more mid-week fixtures. For example, UCL group stages are played over the span of only nine weeks, as opposed to thirteen weeks a year prior. The case of two key players from last season’s UCL final, Real Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior and Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, demonstrates how high the sheer number of games – without much time to rest – could be this season. The two stars were both in matchday squads 32 times in the first half of the 2021/22 season until the new year (including friendlies). In the ongoing season, these figures would be 39 and 40 respectively if they would participate in all available club and national team matches until the end of December.
Getting too predictable?
In recent seasons, it increasingly appears that the bigger and wealthier clubs dominate Europe’s premier club competition. Since the tournament was revamped and introduced the round of 16 in 2003, the average number of non-Big Five clubs reaching this stage stands at three per season. Even fewer non-Big Five clubs tend to advance significantly further: out of the last nineteen years, there were only three editions in which a non-Big Five team managed to reach the semi-finals, with FC Porto being the only one to reach the final (and win the coveted trophy) in 2003/04.
Similar Big Five dominance is expected this year, with bookies predicting only one non-Big Five club advancing from the group stages (Ajax Amsterdam). The most easily predictable group seems to be Group H, with PSG and Juventus having a very high likelihood of qualification ahead of Benfica and Maccabi Haifa. On the other hand, Group D is expected to be the most competitive: there are three strong clubs from the Big Five leagues (Tottenham, Eintracht Frankfurt, OM) and a top club from Portugal, the sixth highest ranked association (Sporting CP).
The ultimate winner is also expected to come from the Big Five leagues, with only Ajax breaking into the fifteen most likely winners based on bookies’ odds. Assessing some betting sites, most predict either Manchester City or PSG to win the title – two teams that have both managed to acquire or retain one of the most coveted young players in the transfer market, Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé respectively. Liverpool come in third after they spent big on Uruguayan international Darwin Núñez, and finally, Bayern München and Real Madrid round out the list of top five most likely champions.
Examining summer transfer activity in the Big Five leagues, it is obvious why there are two English Premier League teams amongst the favourites to win. The English top flight’s gross expenditure was EUR 2.25bn (the only league globally to eclipse EUR 1bn in gross spend) virtually the same as the other four Big Five leagues’ combined gross spend of EUR 2.29bn. The contrast is even starker when looking at the competitions’ net spends (expenditure minus income from transfer fees). The Premier League’s net spend was EUR 1.36bn with LaLiga and Serie A at a significant distance, with only EUR 52m and EUR 3m, respectively, while the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 received more in transfer fees than what they spent.
However, while there is a strong correlation between financial might, activity in the transfer market and sporting success, there are other factors in play too. In recent years especially, the narrative created around Real Madrid’s continental success revolve not only around their squad’s world class football ability, but also the experience they have amassed in the UCL throughout the years.
Analysis of the past five UCL editions has confirmed this hypothesis to some degree, as some correlation is evident between the number of UCL games played prior to the season by squad members and the stage at which a team finishes the tournament.
Rather than predicting who will ultimately win the trophy, the amount of UCL games played by a club indicates when a team is likely to progress from the group stages. Evidence shows that if a side has the experience of around 650 UCL games – which averages out to around 26 games per player considering a 25-man squad – it is extremely unlikely that they do not reach the knockout stages at the very least. In fact, in these five years only Barcelona were an exception in 2021/22 when they finished only third in their group despite having 1098 UCL matches under their belt. After the group stages, the connection between past UCL experience and chance of progression becomes weaker as luck and favourable matchups also come into play and bear a crucial role. The most “inexperienced” UCL-winning squad was Liverpool’s in 2018/19 with only 377 UCL games prior to the season, and the most experienced was Real Madrid’s in 2021/22 with 1157 UCL games under their "collective belt”.
Real Madrid (1055) are yet again the most seasoned squad this year, with PSG (960), Barcelona (889), Liverpool (854) and Atlético de Madrid (837) rounding out the top five. Will someone be able to beat the odds?