The Champions League is changing as of next season, and in so doing it will offer a boost for clubs in Europe’s top four leagues, with the fourth-place association now granted an extra slot—taking them from three to four participants—and all qualifying clubs from the major leagues going directly to the group stages.
Previously, only the top three European associations got four qualifying berths, and the lowest qualifying side was forced to qualify for the group stages through a playoff. Such was the case for Liverpool this season, as they entered at the playoff round and faced Hoffenheim for the chance to qualify.
Next season, both clubs would go directly into the group stages, with 26 of the 32 total group stage berths being handed out automatically and only six up for grabs. It’s clear, of course, what the goal is—to get more clubs from Europe’s top leagues into the group stages for financial reasons.
That’s why Europe’s fourth-ranked association is getting another berth now, too—a change that was announced a year ago and that has now been confirmed. Currently, Italy are fourth and, until now, have seen just three clubs qualify—with the third having to qualify via the playoff round.
Next season, they go from two guaranteed sides to four. It’s a big jump, and it’s a jump as much due to England’s recent European struggles as anything—England look resurgent in Europe this year, but recently there had been a real worry they could fall to fourth behind Italy and lose a spot.
That, now, can’t happen. Four teams from England, Spain, Germany, and Italy will qualify. None will enter via a playoff. Fifth and sixth—France and Russia—also benefit, seeing their two qualifying slots become automatic. Associations 7 through 10—Portugal, Ukraine, Belgium, and Turkey—get a single auto-qualifier.
It will make qualification harder for the Maribors and Qarabags of the world, but for all but the absolute minnows it makes getting in easier. It should also make the group stages slightly more competitive by adding one club from a top league and ensuring no others are lost in the playoffs.
Rules concerning qualification via winning the Champions League or Europa League remain—the winner of both automatically receives a group stage berth, and associations can have up to five clubs in the competition, allowing for a +1 but not +2 situation should an otherwise non-qualifying side win.
In short, that means if an English club from outside the top four wins either, every club in the top four makes it plus the side that wins it—and all go directly to the group stages. If English clubs win both and both are outside the top four, only the top three make it and all go directly to the group stages.