The UEFA Champions League (UCL) is quite possibly the highest standard of football you can see anywhere, with many experts confident enough to state it is superior even to the World Cup. True or not, this brilliant intercontinental competition pits the best club sides from Europe against each other and is the competition all top players dream of competing in.
Real Madrid are the most successful side in the history of the UCL (including in its former guise of the European Cup) with 14 titles to their name as of 2022/23. AC Milan (seven), Bayern Munich and Liverpool (six each), Barcelona (five), Ajax (four), and Manchester United and Inter Milan (three each) are also right up there. The format of the competition has changed many times over the years but typically sees a four-team group phase in autumn give way to two-legged knockout ties in winter and spring, before a final at a neutral venue in May.
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Champions League Format
In this article, we will explain how the Champions League works in terms of its format and the structure of the competition. This includes which teams qualify, how they qualify and at what stage of the competition they enter the tournament. We’ll also outline how the tournament progresses and how its eventual winner is crowned. We will look at key dates for the various stages, any important rules and also the awards that are dished out to players and/or teams.
Note that the information here relates to the current Champions League format as of the 2022/23 season (and beyond). We will explain in a subsequent section the wider history of the competition and any major changes to the structure, its name and so on.
Champions League Dates & Timeframe
In general terms the Champions League runs from September to May as far as most fans in England are concerned. There are preliminary and qualifying rounds that take place prior to the group phase (which begins in September), but as English clubs do not currently have to take part in these, most supporters would think of September as the real start date of the competition.
The Champions League (CL, or also UCL – UEFA Champions League) typically takes a winter break after the group phase. This means there is often no CL football between mid-December and February. The dates for the 2022/23 season can be seen below, including the preliminary stages. However, note that due to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, taking place in winter, these are slightly different from the norm.
- 21 June 2022 – Preliminary round semis
- 24 June 2022 – Preliminary final
- 5/6 and 12/13 July 2022 – First qualifying round
- 19/20 and 26/27 July 2022 – Second qualifying round
- 2/3 and 9/10 August 2022 – Third qualifying round
- 16/17 and 23/24 August 2022 – Play-offs
- 6 September to 2 November – Group stage
- 14 February to 15 March 2023 – Round of 16
- 1/12 and 18/19 April 2023 – Quarter finals
- 9/10 and 16/17 May 2023 – Semi finals
- 10 June 2023 – Final (in Istanbul)
As you can see, including all the preliminary phases that smaller sides have to compete in, the whole Champions League runs for almost a full 12 months. That is normal, however, the dates above are slightly different as noted, due to the World Cup. Ordinarily the group phase, which sees each team play six matches in total, would span a longer period. A start of mid-September, a little later than detailed above, would be normal, whilst the last round of fixtures would typically take place around the middle of December.
The other dates are more or less in line with the standard UCL calendar, although the final normally takes place earlier, in late May or right at the start of June.
There are various draws that take place to determine which sides will play one another. The dates of these vary and again, due to the unusual calendar for the 2022/23 CL, things have been a little different. The key dates to look out for ahead of the latest edition of the event are detailed below. Note that in a more normal campaign, unaffected by a winter World Cup, some of these would move slightly to slot in with the more standard dates of the various rounds.
- Preliminary Round – 7/6/22
- 1st Qualifying Round – 14/6/22
- 2nd Qualifying Round – 15/6/22
- 3rd Qualifying Round – 18/7/22
- Play-Off – 2/8/22
- Group Stage – 25/8/22
- Round of 16 – 7/11/22
- Quarters & Semis – 17/3/23
Qualifying for the Champions League
There are three ways to qualify for the Champions League. The main route is through a team’s domestic league position the preceding season. In the major leagues the top two, three, or even four sides will progress to the next season’s UCL. The UEFA coefficient of an association determines how many places they get and at what stage their sides join and this is established, essentially, by how that league’s sides do in the various European competitions.
At the time of writing, England lead the way, with Spain, Germany, Italy and France following, which will not come as a big surprise to most football fans. Next come Netherlands and Portugal, again, as many people with a decent knowledge of European football might predict, though in eighth place we have Scotland, thanks to the solid European performances of Celtic and Rangers in recent years.
Whilst England have four sides that automatically go through to the group stage of the competition, France and Portugal only get three places, with the third of those (the side that finished third the season before) going into the qualifying rounds. Associations ranked seventh to 15th get just two places, including in the qualifying rounds, whilst even lower ones may get just one automatic place or even none, with their top sides having to enter in either one of the qualifying rounds or even the preliminary phase.
The second route into the competition is by winning the Europa League. Assuming a team does not also qualify via their league position, this means an association may end up with more than their normal quota of sides in the UCL. This happened in 2022/23 when Eintracht Frankfurt, 2022 Europa League winners, joined the four Bundesliga teams who qualified via league finish in the competition.
Last, if a team wins the Champions League, they gain entry into the following season’s tournament at the group stage. If they are already qualified the place passes to the highest association (in terms of coefficient) without a club in the group phase.
Can a league have six clubs in the CL?
The simple answer to this question is no with the maximum being five. One might think six teams would be possible in the unlikely event that one of the large nations produces the winner of the Champions League and the Europa League but neither finish in the top four. In this improbable scenario, sadly for the team that finished fourth, they would miss out. The top three in the league would enter at the group phase, along with the winner of the same season’s UCL and Europa League.
Tournament Structure – How to Win the Champions League
No side has ever won the UCL having started in the tournament before the group phase. As such, we will leave the intricacies of the preliminary rounds and qualifying rounds to the official UEFA website and focus on how the tournament plays out from the group phase onwards.
There are 32 teams in the group phase, with eight groups of four, A to H. Teams are seeded into four pots and clubs from the same country will not be placed in the same group.
Teams meet home and away, playing six games each in total and the top two sides from each progress to the last 16. If sides are level on points, then the first tie-breaker is not goal difference, as is often the case, but the head-to-head record between the tied teams. Then comes goal difference but only in the games between the sides in question, then goals scored in these games, with various other tie-breakers if needed, right down to UEFA’s club coefficient.
The side that finishes third in the group drops down to the Europa League but the top two go into the knockout phase. At this point things are fairly standard, with a last 16, quarter final and semi final stage that all see teams meet over two legs, home and away. There is no away goals rule, this having been dropped for the 2021/22 campaign in UEFA competitions.
This means that if the scores are level on aggregate we head to extra time and then penalties. At no stage do extra goals “count double”, or more accurately, at no point, even after extra time, are they used as a tie-breaker.
The final is played at a neutral venue, or more accurately a pre-decided venue, as it is possible for a team to play on their own ground in a CL final. This has happened a number of times over the years, including Liverpool’s 1984 win over Roma at the Stadio Olimpico and Chelsea’s success on penalties in Munich against Bayern in 2012. The final is a one-off game and again, extra time and penalties will be used should the game end level.
Champions League Awards
Come May, or perhaps June, we will know who has won the Champions League. Alongside the main prize there are several other awards up for grabs. Whilst there is no official golden boot, there is great prestige for whoever is the tournament’s top scorer. Increasingly assists are also counted and recognised but again there is no official award.
There are, however, official awards for both the Player of the Season and the Young Player of the Season. In addition, a technical committee names a Team of the Season recognising the best XI from the competition.
History of the Champions League
The Champions League began life as the European Cup in 1955, rebranding amid a major change in format in 1992. Initially it was officially the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens but was usually referred to as the European Cup. In the early days it was for champions of domestic leagues only with some extra teams playing by invitation. It featured fewer teams than the modern-day tournament, initially 16, and only straight knockout ties.
There have been various tweaks and changes over the years but the biggest came in 1992 when the Champions League was born. Over the years there have been different rounds, including a brief period with a double group stage but the competition has steadily expanded to the point that around 80 clubs now take part at some stage.
Champions League Finances
The Champions League is a key part of the finances of the major clubs and those that go far in the competition will earn tens of millions of Euros. In core prize money the winners may take home around €85m with extra revenue from the “market pool”, depending on the TV market in their country, adding around half as much again.
When you include the extra match-day revenue, sponsorship and exposure a club receives from doing well in the Champions League it is clear what a huge difference this competition makes. Even simply qualifying for the group phase guarantees a minimum payment of more than £13m with extra money awarded for each game won.
Champions League Records
The dominant side in the competition, including both the European Cup and UCL era, is Real Madrid. The Spanish giants have 14 titles to their name, with the next best AC Milan on just seven. Bayern Munich and Liverpool have both won the competition six times. Real’s 17 finals is also well clear of the field with Milan and Bayern both having appeared in 11.
A less welcome record belongs to Juventus, with no side able to match their seven defeats in the showpiece game, the Italians winning just two out of nine finals. Overall Italian clubs have won the European Cup/Champions League 12 times, English clubs collectively able to match Real Madrid’s 14 and Spain the most successful nation with 19, Barca adding five to their rivals’ tally.
Whilst La Liga has produced just two winners, five different English clubs have climbed the highest mountain, with Man United (three), Chelsea and Nottingham Forest (two each), and Aston Villa (one) joining Liverpool in the winner’s circle. No other nation can match that, with three German sides, three Italian and three Dutch the next best.
Top Goalscorers in the Champions League
The Champions League is probably the highest standard of football you can watch and has almost all of the world’s best players. The list of its record goalscorers is like a who’s who of world football, though it is dominated by modern players due to the greater number of games played in 21st-century editions of the competition.
Leading the way (as of 7/9/22) is Cristiano Ronaldo but will the Portuguese maestro be able to add to his 140 CL strikes? Next comes Lionel Messi on 125, with Robert Lewandowski a distant third on 86, the same as Karim Benzema. In the top 20 we also have legends like Thierry Henry, Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In terms of goals per game those top three fair very well, on 0.77, 0.80 and 0.8 respectively. However, Gerd Muller managed 34 goals in just 35 games (0.97 goals per game) and Ferenc Puskas, a Hungarian great of the Madrid side of the 1950s and 1960s, averaged 0.88. But the best goals/games average? You might have heard of a certain Erling Haaland? Incredibly at the age of just 22 (and at the time of writing) the sensational Norwegian has notched 25 goals in just 20 matches, a rate of 1.25 goals per game!
Given he has played just one game for Man City in the competition (scoring two goals), we might reasonably expect that to improve too, with most of his goals coming for Red Bull Salzburg (eight) and Borussia Dortmund (15). A scary thought! Haaland was top scorer in the 2020/21 UCL with 10 and he could smash that with City.
Ronaldo has won the CL golden boot seven times, whilst Messi was top scorer on six occasions. No other player can come close to that, with Muller next on four, though we suspect Haaland will soon move into the running. As for the most goals in a single UCL campaign, it is Ronaldo who leads the way again.
The Portuguese supremo registered 17 goals in 2013/14 and also has the second-best tally with his 16 in 2015/16. Once again though, should City’s Norwegian powerhouse stay fit these records could certainly come under threat.