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New Champions League seeding rules do Russia a favour

UEFA have tweaked the rules governing Champions League seeding, in an attempt to reward national champions and mix things up a bit.

Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

Not too long after the European Cup became the Champions League, it stopped being a tournament just for champions. In came shiny new sponsors, in came the group stage, and from 1997-98, in came the runners up. Since then, the universal law of corporate bloat has ensured the expansion continues, and currently Europe's biggest leagues send up to four teams to the continent's premier tournament.

Further, places in the draw for the group stage are allocated not on the basis of whether a club happens to have won a title the previous season, but on their UEFA coefficient, a rolling points average based on a team's performance in all European competitions over the last five years. So this year, English champions Manchester City went into pot 2 of the draw, making a tougher draw more likely, while third-placed Chelsea and fourth-placed Arsenal went into pot 1 and so were protected from being drawn against the other seven biggest sides. Sure enough, City ended up in a group with Bayern Munich.

But! No longer. Just a few months too late for City, UEFA have announced that as of next season, the eight places in pot 1 of the draw will be reserved for the champions of Europe's seven strongest leagues, plus the previous year's winner. No longer will the title-holders of Spain, Germany, England, France, Italy, Portugal and ... Russia, apparently, have to cower in fear in the lowly pots. No, they can hold their heads high in one another's company, looking down on their inferiors.

By way of an illustration, here's what this year's Champions League group stage pots would have looked like had the new rules been in place. Teams in bold have been promoted one or two groups; teams in italics have been relegated.

Pot 1: Real Madrid (as holders); Atletico Madrid; Bayern Munich; Manchester City; Paris Saint-Germain; Benfica; Juventus; CSKA Moscow

Pot 2: Barcelona; Chelsea; Arsenal; Porto; Schalke 04; Borussia Dortmund; Shakhtar Donetsk; Basel

Pot 3: Zenit Saint Petersburg; Bayer Leverkusen; Olympiacos; Ajax; Liverpool; Sporting; Galatasaray; Athletic Bilbao

Pot 4 (unchanged): Anderlecht; Roma; APOEL; BATE; Ludogorets Razgrad; Maribor; Monaco; Malmo

The big winners here are obviously CSKA Moscow and Manchester City, who jump into the top groups. No more Bayern Munich for either of them. On the losing side, Arsenal and Chelsea are suddenly at risk of being drawn with the champions of Spain or Germany, while Barcelona are also vulnerable to the latter.

So what effect is this going to deliver? It's not going to ensure an easier draw for those teams suddenly promoted, necessarily, since the knock-on effect is clearly a significant beefing up of pot 2. Take CSKA Moscow as an example from this year's draw. Under the groups as they were, their best possible group was perhaps Benfica, Basel and Malmo; the worst perhaps Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Roma (which they actually got). Under new rules, the best could have been Basel, Galatasaray and Malmo; the worst perhaps Barcelona, Liverpool, and Roma.

Not a huge difference there, and groups of death remain eminently possible, as do groups of the-opposite-of-death. But perhaps the intended effect is less to make things easier or harder for any given team, and more to introduce a bit more unpredictability into proceedings. With only one club from Spain, Germany and England (plus last year's winner) guaranteed to protection from each other, Europe could be in line for some fresh clashes between the bigger beasts. Each year, the winners of the Premier League will be in a different pot to one of Real Madrid or Barcelona. Chaos, in a small way.

The decision to admit the top four clubs from Spain and England is probably irreversible now, but at least this ensures they won't be able to persistently monopolise the best seats in the house. As a decision, this sits very much in line with UEFA's tweaks to qualifying this year, which were again designed to allow a few more national champions into the competition proper. It seems someone at UEFA, most likely Michel Platini, has decided that the Champions League should probably be kinder to those that are champions, even if they aren't as obviously powerful as the fourth-best team in England, Arsenal whoever that might be. You go, Russia.