As the dust begins to settle on the ill-fated European Super League, attention can now turn to the reformed Champions League and its proposed expansion from 32 to 36 teams.
Of course, the new-look Champions League, which is set to debut at the beginning of the 2024/25 season, represents a far less radical change than the controversial ESL.
It also largely retains the spirit of competition that underpins football at all levels, with qualification largely gained on merit (aside from the use of UEFA coefficient rankings to award two places to clubs, who missed out on the UCL places in their domestic leagues).
However, it has met with a lukewarm reaction from fans and pundits alike, while it will also place a greater workload on clubs that are already complaining about the number of matches contested each season.
We’ll look at the new league in closer detail below while asking how it’s likely to impact the domestic cups in the UK.
The New UCL Format Explored
Not only will the number of competing teams post-qualifying increase from 32 to 36, but the entire structure of the Champions League will be revamped under the new plans.
More specifically, the teams will compete in a more traditional league format rather than a round-robin tournament, with each side playing 10 games against different opponents (five at home and five on the road).
It’s also understood that three points will be awarded for a win, with one point earned in the event of a draw.
Once these games have been completed, the top eight teams in terms of
accumulated points will advance automatically to the round of 16. The remaining eight knockout places will be contested by the sides placing between ninth and 24th, who will compete in two-legged play-offs against one another.
From the round of 16 onwards, the format will replicate the knockout portion of the existing Champions League, with two-legged quarter and semi-finals taking place before the final is held at a neutral venue in May.
What Will This Mean for Domestic Cup Competitions in the UK?
This will definitely increase the number of games played by competing sides, although the figure will vary depending on how far each team progresses.
For example, competing sides will play a minimum of 10 post-qualification games under the new format (as opposed to six), while those who finish between first and 24th but are eliminated following a play-off tie will complete 12 matches in total.
If a side reaches the final after placing outside the top eight and winning a play-off tie, they’ll play a maximum of 19 matches, which is six more than the current amount required to win the Champions League.
While this may not seem like a lot, it’s important to consider this in the context of an already packed domestic schedule. The demands of international football also consume numerous midweek matchday slots throughout the season, so changes will need to be made to accommodate even a small number of additional games.
This could prove particularly devastating to the Carabao Cup competition, which some would argue is already disregarded and demeaned by the approach of the so-called ‘big six’ clubs.
At the very least, competing UCL sides may have to field U-23 players to maintain a presence in the tournament, while they may even choose to withdraw completely and increase the likelihood of a devalued competition eventually being scrapped.
But what of the FA Cup? Undoubtedly, this boasts a considerably higher stock than the Carabao alternative, while the fact that Premier League sides don’t participate until January slightly alters the proposition.
However, we may see pressure from leading clubs to scrap all replays in the FA Cup, which are currently allowed up to and including the fourth round. Similarly, competing UCL sides could look to enter the tournament in the fourth rather than the third round, to create a little additional room in their increasingly packed schedule.
Both measures would potentially damage the integrity of the competition while hindering the prospects of lower and non-league sides that can profit significantly from replays against bigger clubs.
Similarly, delaying the entry of UCL sides could minimise the potential of underdogs coming up against the very best, with this detrimental to the spirit and the fortunes of the grassroots game as a whole.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the reformed Champions League may not seem as troubling or as radical in the wake of the failed ESL proposals, but we shouldn’t think that the expansion of the tournament won’t have an impact on our domestic game.
Certainly, the introduction of additional midweek games could sound the death-knell for the Carabao Cup, while potentially impacting the FA Cup and the long-term future of lower and non-league sides.
Of course, a compromise clearly has to be struck between UEFA and the world’s leading sides, especially given the financial contribution they make to the wider football pyramid. However, the new UCL format is not without its challenges, and these will need to be tackled ahead of its rollout in the 2024/25 campaign.