UEFA have confirmed that 26 clubs will now be guaranteed entry into the Champions League group stage, beginning from next season.
In a move that had long been in the pipeline, European football’s governing body has released official details of the qualification process for the sides hoping to make it into the continent’s premier club competition – and it very much favours the big boys.
Presumably in an effort to appease the bigger clubs and lessen the threat of a European superleague, four teams from each of the countries with the highest UEFA coefficients – currently Spain, England, Germany and Italy – will have four guaranteed places in the group stage.
This does away with the need for said clubs to compete in the playoffs, and makes finishing fourth in the relevant domestic division (as opposed to second or third) only more important for the prize money and bragging rights.
The two nations with the next coefficients – currently France and Russia – will each receive two group places, with the remaining guaranteed spots handed out to the next four top-ranked nations (one each).
The Champions League and Europa League winners will still be guaranteed entry for the following year – however, should the winners of the former qualify for the group stage through their domestic league, that place will go to the 11th highest ranked nation (currently Czech Republic). If the winners of the latter have already qualified, meanwhile, than spot will be awarded to the third-placed team in the fifth-highest ranked nation.
Should, say, Arsenal, win the Europa League this year but miss out on the top four, the Premier League will once again have five entrants in the competition next year.
In another big change to the format, the fixtures will now be staggered across two different timeslots (as is currently the case with the Europa League), with group games now taking place at 5.55pm and 8pm GMT.
In terms of premilinary qualification (which will directly affect League of Ireland Premier Division champions Cork City), UEFA have good and bad news on that front. The bad news is that there will now be an extra round of qualifications to navigate through, but the good news is that, regardless of which round the Leesiders exit in, they will be transferred directly into the next round of the Europa League.
To repeat, these changes will come into effect from the 2018/19 season onwards.