There is the adage, made famous by former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, that second place was nowhere.
Au contraire, Bill. It is not just second that has become somewhere, but third and fourth, too.
And, from the end of this season, we might even start to consider finishing fifth in the 20-team Premier League a cause for celebration.
A revamped Champions League has room for more clubs for 2024-25 and beyond, and that means the door could swing open for English football’s fifth-best team to earn their share of a financial windfall.
But for the Premier League to get that extra spot, the eight English clubs currently competing in UEFA’s three competitions need to hold their own against continental opponents.
The Athletic analyses who is likely to challenge the Premier League’s claims for that fifth golden ticket…
How will the Champions League be different in 2024-25?
Bigger is better. Or so decided UEFA last year.
Gone are the 32 clubs split into eight groups of four that we’ve been watching in the Champions League for years, replaced by one big monster that is a 36-team league. The complexities of that format are best told at length elsewhere but the so-called Swiss Model will see the top eight sides qualify automatically for the last 16 and be joined by another eight who progress through a two-legged play-off round.
The revised structure will see the total number of Champions League games per season leap from today’s 125 to 189. Key to that will be those additional four clubs joining the party.
As well as the traditional means of entry through final standings in domestic leagues and by winning the Champions League or Europa League, another four spots will be up for grabs; one via a third-placed finish in the country that stands fifth in UEFA’s association rankings (it’s currently France); one to a lesser domestic champion through the qualification rounds; and two to the nations who had the best collective performances from their clubs in the previous season’s European competitions.
The latter are what UEFA is calling its “European Performance Spots” and it is those that could mean a fifth-placed finish in the Premier League this season — or Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga or Germany’s Bundesliga — would be enough to qualify for the 2024-25 Champions League.
And this is where it gets a smidgen complicated.
Every season, all of the UEFA national associations will get a rating according to the collective coefficient of their clubs, with the total points amassed divided by the number of teams participating to avoid the usual suspects topping the chart every year.
The top two countries then get the extra Champions League places.
Talk to me about coefficients…
Said nobody ever.
This is UEFA’s nerdy way of rating the performances of its associations and the clubs who participate in its three competitions.
The better you do in them, the more points you get. it’s two for a Champions League win, one for a draw and nothing for a defeat. Four additional points come for a team’s qualification for the groups, and then again to the last 16. Manchester City, for example, racked up a tidy 33 points when going all the way for the first time last season.
An association’s coefficient, however, is calculated by the average of its clubs’ performances. And that includes adventures in the Europa League and Europa Conference League, albeit with fewer points on offer in those.
One club winning the Champions League would not be a guarantee of a high association coefficient if everyone else from that country flopped at European level. All points won across the three UEFA competitions get added up and then divided by the number of clubs from each nation taking part.
Any annual quirks in the matrix have traditionally been ironed out by UEFA judging all its association coefficients over a five-year period.
The Netherlands, for example, had a higher coefficient than Spain in 2021-22, but still trail the top-four leagues by a large margin over the five years. Hence England, Spain, Germany and Italy are the ones handed four places in the Champions League — a reward for the achievements of their clubs in the previous five seasons.
The biggest leagues will continue to get those privileges in 2024-25 and beyond but the European Performance Spots are not quite so cut and dried, as for them it is only the achievements of one season that are considered.
So, will fifth in the Premier League be enough for Champions League football in 2024-25?
Only once before, when Liverpool won the Champions League and finished outside the top four in 2004-05, have there been five Premier League clubs in Europe’s elite competition.
Alas, none of us can answer yet whether it will happen next season. Only events over the coming weeks and months can tell us that for certain, but it is safe to say there is a high chance. History, if nothing else, tells us that much.
In six of the last seven seasons, the annual achievements of English clubs in Europe have been first or second best, according to UEFA’s metrics. Only in 2019-20, when finishing narrowly behind Spain and Germany, has that modern pattern been broken.
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Yet it is the fate of the eight clubs now competing in Europe — Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle United, West Ham United, Liverpool, Brighton & Hove Albion and Aston Villa — that is the deciding factor.
If City can retain the Champions League and there is further success for an English club in either the Europa League or Europa Conference League, as there was when West Ham won the latter last season, then it would be safe to gild that fifth position. The points amassed on those European journeys would almost certainly be sufficient.
Yet there is the potential for any success to be undermined by the failings of others.
If Liverpool, Brighton, West Ham or Villa were unable to get out of their groups (which is much less likely after this week’s results in the fourth round of six group matchdays) or fall early in the knockout stages, then England’s coefficient will be dragged down accordingly.
Then there is the prospect of Manchester United or Newcastle — possibly both — not only bowing out of the Champions League after the group phase but missing the chance to win points in the Europa League knockouts by finishing bottom rather than third.
In Newcastle’s case, it might end up all the more damaging if group rivals AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund were to progress and prosper, as Italy and Germany have typically been two rivals to England on the coefficient tables.
This all introduces us to the new era: a club rooting for a domestic rival.
There is the faint prospect of one club waiting on the outcome of the final rounds of a European campaign to learn if they are to play Champions League football the next season.
Might Manchester United end the season knowing their qualification is reliant on either Manchester City or Liverpool reaching a European final? Improbable, but not impossible.
Who, if anyone, might the Premier League lose out to?
It is early days, but other nations have been more productive through the groups of UEFA’s competitions this season.
Italian clubs have performed well in the Champions League and Milan’s win over Paris Saint-Germain in midweek raises the prospect of all four Serie A clubs progressing to the last 16. Atalanta, Roma and Fiorentina are also well-placed to advance in the other two UEFA competitions.
Germany will not see a full complement of its clubs move on after Union Berlin’s shortcomings were exposed in the Champions League but Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig might now be joined by Dortmund in the round of 16. Bayer Leverkusen, Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt will also be expected to move forward from groups in the Europa League and Conference League.
Opta’s predictive model still has the Premier League with a 77 per cent chance of claiming one of the additional spots, but the results this week saw the Bundesliga and Serie A close the gap. It adds another layer of intrigue to Newcastle’s group finale at home against Milan on December 13, and shows how damaging their two defeats to Dortmund could prove not only to them but also to other Premier League clubs.
The key for the Premier League is that all eight teams are still alive and fighting.
The same cannot be said for La Liga, which saw Osasuna knocked out in the summer’s qualifying rounds for the Conference League, or the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, where FC Twente were eliminated from the same competition at the same preliminary stage. The earlier a country’s teams fall, the more it hurts the average.
The outlier in Europe through the opening weeks of group-stage play was Turkey, who, at one time, topped the chart thanks to Fenerbahce’s form in the Conference League and Galatasaray collecting points in the Champions League.
Their haul before matchweek four was considerably less than England’s but regarded as superior due to the fact only four Turkish clubs are competing in Europe this season. Given Galatasaray now face a battle to qualify for the Champions League knockouts, and Besiktas will not make it through their Conference League group, do not expect their numbers to be maintained.
And that, ultimately, is what points back towards the Premier League eventually gaining an extra Champions League place for the side finishing fifth.
English clubs, now led by City, have become well-versed in going far.
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(Top photo: Bruno Fernandes and Alejandro Garnacho after Manchester United lost to Copenhagen; Maja Hitij via Getty Images)