Champions League: Mouth-watering last-16 draw shows UEFA's revamped seeding system a welcome change

Editor's note: The draw for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 threw up some exciting clashes. However, few felt that some of these clashes had come too early in the competition due to the seeding changes made by UEFA. There is also a certain set that feels the changes made to the seeding system benefits the lesser sides in the competition. The following article offers one point-of-view regarding the seeding changes and how it affected the draw. To read the opposing viewpoint, click here.

A host of mouth-watering fixtures was finalised in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Draw at Nyon on Tuesday as some of Europe’s biggest clubs were pegged against each other in the first set of knockout fixtures. Once the pot-picking party was over, the ties read as – Juventus vs Tottenham Hotspur, FC Basel vs Manchester City, Porto vs Liverpool, Sevilla vs Manchester United, Real Madrid vs Paris Saint-Germain, Shakhtar Donetsk vs AS Roma, Chelsea vs Barcelona, and Bayern Munich vs Besiktas.

EFA director of competitions Giorgio Marchetti, Spanish former international Xabi Alonso and UEFA head of club competitions Michael Heselschwerdt take part in the draw for the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League football tournament at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon. AFP

EFA director of competitions Giorgio Marchetti, Xabi Alonso and Michael Heselschwerdt take part in the draw for the round of 16 of the Champions League the in Nyon. AFP

While the contest between Madrid and PSG has the potential to grab the most eyeballs, with the defending champions taking on the free-scoring Parisians whose Mercato spending last summer tipped them as one of the favourites for the Champions League, the draw also offers classic European encounters in Chelsea vs Barcelona and a clash of contrasting footballing ideologies in Juventus vs Tottenham Hotspur.

The likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Bayern Munich have been pitted against rather comfortable opponents, but the Round of 16 have also thrown up certain low-key intriguing fixtures like – Porto vs Liverpool and Shakhtar Donetsk vs AS Roma – which are evenly-matched contests.

Europe’s premier competition has always been the playground for the elite European clubs with only Porto’s triumph under Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho in 2003/04 edition being the only instance when a club outside the ‘top four’ European domestic leagues won the competition in the last two decades. Although UEFA has tried various measures to level the competitive field, including the controversial Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, the gulf in class between the likes of Madrid and Bayern on one hand and Besiktas and Shakhtar Donetsk on the other, has never been more apparent.

With concessions being made for the richer clubs throughout the spectrum, especially with the recently proposed ‘four assured group stage spots to the four big leagues’, the newly implemented seeding system prior to the group-stage draws has come as a breath of fresh air. The champions of the seven biggest leagues in Europe were named as the top seeds along with the Champions League winner as opposed to the previous seeding system which took into consideration the club co-efficient ratings.

“Football is about winning, it’s about competition, it’s about sporting merit. I think it’s kind of a natural thing to give those who have won a competition a special treatment,” the then-UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino had effusively praised the change in the seeding system.

In a constantly evolving European club football dynamic, the UEFA has often found itself between a rock and a hard place when trying to contend with the bigger European clubs, especially after the corruption scandal which left the top footballing administrative bodies in a position of weakness, providing the richer clubs with the necessary clout. While the current seeding system means that a club like Chelsea have to travel to Azerbaijan in the group stages or that the Scudetto champions Juventus come up against European giant killers Tottenham so early into the competition, it somewhat levels the playing field for the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto.

The club coefficient rating system, although a good indicator of the clubs’ consistency in European competitions, failed to account for the emerging powerhouses. For instance, a struggling Arsenal were the top seeds in the group stage draw ahead of the Premier League champions Manchester City in 2015. As a result, Manuel Pellegrini’s side was drawn into a difficult group which in turn hampered their overall run in the competition. Not only does the current seeding system prevent such episodes, it also ensures clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk – one of the dark horses this season – have a fair opportunity to make a deep run into the Champions League.

Like most business entities, the Champions League thrives on the revenue generated from viewership and sponsorship. While the estimated global TV audience of the UEFA Champions League this past season stood at the 350 million mark, traditional sports programming has suffered spectacularly in the last few years, with a worrisome decline in television viewership. Madrid’s triumph over Juventus in the UEFA Champions League final in June 2017 was witnessed by a cumulative thirty million football fans in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain alone, but the dwindling viewership in the prior stages, especially in the UK has been a cause of concern for the UEFA.

Although Premier League clubs do not rely heavily on the revenue generated from the ‘TV money pool’ in the Champions League, because of their exponential growth in the domestic TV revenue in the last few years, a lack of similar avenues for clubs belonging to other European nations make them somewhat dependent on the UEFA Champions League prize money as well as TV revenue for their source of income.

The seeding system again comes into play here – while there is always a risk that clashes of titans in the earlier knockout rounds dilute the competition in the later stages, it also ensures the television channels have a healthy viewership ratings in the months of February and March, thereby increasing the sponsorship potentials for the UEFA and raising its fascination to an outside viewer.

As more and more clubs enter the competitive fray, slowly bridging the gap between the mid-level entrants and the true elite powerhouses, the UEFA Champions League continues to evolve. But for the common football fan, the new seeding system implies your favourite club, whether you support Shakhtar Donetsk or Real Madrid, an equal chance of progressing to the last eight of the competition.

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2017 08:47:36 IST

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