Why it really does matter whether you win your Champions League group

Does it matter if you finish top or second in your Champions League group? Sir Alex Ferguson, whose Manchester United team topped their group, thinks so ("You hope you do finish top. There are certain teams there [that you want to avoid]"), while Arsene Wenger of runners-up Arsenal says "we play the second game away, but that is not statistically proven to be such a disadvantage ". But whatever the managers may say, you can prove that it does matter by crunching the numbers.

Firstly, witness the list of finalists since 1993/94 (the Champions League's second season, but the debut campaign had a late stage in which the only the two group winners progressed – straight to the final). In the 18 subsequent seasons, 13 tournament winners (72%) had topped their group, as had 15 beaten finalists (83%) – meaning that only 8 of 36 finalists (22.2%) had been group runners-up. Group winners are 3.5 times more likely to reach the final. 

Inter, 2010: an exception that doesn't prove the rule

In 1999/2000, the Champions League format was changed again, with the introduction of a second group stage producing the eight quarter-finalists (and turfing eight teams out of the competition). This system lasted for four years, and of the 32 teams who got through this second group stage, 24 had been first-stage group winners, 8 had been runners-up. First-stage group winners were three times more likely to get through the second group stage.

The current system came about in 2003/04, with the group winners and runners-up going through to the Round of 16 knock-outs. Since then, 23 of the 72 round-of-16 losers (32%) have been group winners, 49 of the 72 Ro16 losers (68%) were group runners-up. Group winners are more than twice as likely to get through the Round of 16.

Research by John Sward and Fran Tye.

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