Champions League knockout draw: What if group winners could choose their opponents?

Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus vs Barcelona, Champions League knockout draw
(Image credit: PA)

Three years ago, Tottenham brilliantly won their Champions League group ahead of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. With 16 points, Spurs were even the best group winners. Then the draw of the round of 16, which is supposed to reward group winners and spare them a difficult matchup, gave them Juventus. That didn’t seem fair. Juventus had finished second in their group, behind other giants, Barcelona.

That same year, Paris Saint-Germain were the second-best group winners with 15 points, having finished ahead of Bayern Munich in Group B. 

What was their reward for an excellent group stage performance? Facing the mighty Real Madrid, eventual winners of the competition, in the round of 16. Meanwhile, Bayern were drawn against Besiktas – and easily beat them 5-0, 3-1.

On paper group winners, who can only face runner-ups, are protected during the draw. But it often happens that they’re not fairly rewarded.

The problem got worse when UEFA changed the seeding rules of the group stage draw. 

Until 2014, pot 1 used to be made of the seven best teams based on the UEFA club coefficient, together with the title holders. 

Since 2015, it is made of the domestic champions of the best European leagues (together with the title holders, and also the Europa League title holders since 2018), while the other pots are still built according to the coefficient. This means that pot 1 now has some relatively weak teams (say, the likes of Spartak Moscow), and pot 2 is stronger than it used to be. As a consequence, it’s more likely that two very strong teams end up in the same group, and thus it is also more likely that some very strong teams will finish second in their group.

For instance, three years ago, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, and PSG were in pot 2, while Monaco, Spartak Moscow, and Shakhtar Donetsk were in pot 1. As soon as Groups B (Bayern, PSG) and D (Juventus, Barcelona) were formed, it became pretty clear that two of those four powerhouses would finish second in their group. And as a result even the best group winners could face very strong opponents in the round of 16. This year, Bayern and Manchester City, despite being the best group winners with 16 points out of 18, may face Barcelona in February.

There is a fairer – and funnier – way: what if UEFA allowed the best group winners to choose their opponents? 

The best group winner (based on points, goal difference, goals scored) would first pick its opponent among the runners-up. UEFA could still require that two teams from the same country or the same group cannot meet in the round of 16. 

Then the second-best group winner would pick its opponent among the remaining runners-up that satisfy the constraints, and so on. In a more open version, the choosing team could pick any other admissible team, including group winners. Ahead of each pick, a computer would give the list of all admissible opponents, as explained here.

The best group winners would be fairly rewarded. The group stage would be more exciting, with teams fighting until the last minute of the last group game, even if they have already secured the first place in their group, to try to finish among the best group winners and get one of the first picks. There would be no risk of a club sending its B team on the last matchday – thus possibly distorting the group results – because they have already won the group, and a much-reduced risk of collusion, due to the high benefits awarded to the best group winners. 

Of course, the groups would have to be well balanced, otherwise the winner of an easy group would receive an undue advantage. For that, it would be worth considering a better seeding system (opens in new tab).

The new knockout format would also be more fun: during an exciting, much-anticipated TV show, managers would be given two minutes to pick their opponent among the admissible remaining ones. The picking strategies of the teams are sure to stir debate among fans and pundits, and to attract a lot of media attention. The added strategy component could even revive a competition that can sometimes look a bit boring, year after year

The first teams picked may feel offended, but can you imagine a better way to motivate your players? They think we’re the weakest team, let’s prove them wrong! This year, Porto, Lazio, Atalanta, and Borussia Mönchengladbach would surely sense they’d be among the first picks…

It's also true that the managers may not feel comfortable having to make the decision. But that would become part of the tournament and they would surely get used to the exercise.

Three years ago, Tottenham could have picked Basel, and PSG could have picked Shakhtar, offering the two best group winners a reasonably easy way to the quarterfinals, instead of facing – and losing against – two giants.

Let’s see how this new "Choose Your Opponent" design could work out this year, if we keep the country and group constraints. 

Bayern were the best group winners, with 16 points and a goal difference of +13. Then we’d have in order Manchester City (16 points, +12), Juventus (15), Chelsea (14), Dortmund (13), Liverpool (13), PSG (12), and Real Madrid (10). 

The eight runners-up are Atletico Madrid, Gladbach, Porto, Atalanta, Sevilla, Lazio, Barcelona, and Leipzig. Under today’s rule, Bayern may have to face Barcelona, despite their great group stage performance. Under the "choose your opponent’’ format, they could choose, say, Porto.

Then Manchester City could choose Lazio; Juventus may pick Gladbach; Chelsea go for Atalanta; Dortmund choose Sevilla. In this scenario, Liverpool would then have to choose among Barcelona and Atletico only, in order to avoid a future dead-end (in this case, a matchup between Real and another Spanish team). They would thus be facing a tough choice, and maybe this year they would pick Barcelona, who have started the season poorly. 

For the same reason PSG would have no choice: they’d have to pick Atletico. Finally, Real Madrid would face Leipzig. It's worth noting that the country constraint benefits Real Madrid a lot this year, as they can only face Porto, Lazio, Atalanta, and Leipzig.

So in this example we’d have the following table for the round of 16:

Porto vs Bayern Munich

Lazio vs Manchester City

Borussia Monchengladbach vs Juventus

Atalanta vs Chelsea

Sevilla vs Borussia Dortmund

Barcelona vs Liverpool

Atletico Madrid vs PSG

RB Leipzig vs Real Madrid

Not bad, huh? 

Of course, Bayern may prefer to play, say, Lazio instead of Porto, and all teams would have to adapt to Bayern’s choice. In the open version, City, Juventus, and Chelsea could even pick, say, Dortmund (a group winner) if they wanted, as long as it hasn’t been picked yet. 

At a time where less people watch the Champions League on TV, and UEFA is investigating various possible format changes to boost its signature competition, this "Choose Your Opponent" design would not only make the Champions League more fair, it also has the potential to revive it, by making the group stage more exciting and the round of 16 draw more fun and more engaging. 

Got your own ideas for Champions League reforms? Let us know by tweeting us @FourFourTwo (opens in new tab).

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