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Champions League draw: How important is it?

| 20.08.2021
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This season’s Champions League draw for the group stage takes place on Thursday and the first round of group matches kicks off on September 14th.

Ahead of the draw taking place, we have analysed every group match since the current competition format was established in 2003/4 to work out what to expect and how much it could matter.

Do long trips in the group stage hurt a team’s chances?

Strangely, for all the talk of tough away trips to the outer fringes of the continent in midweek, having to travel a long way to complete their away fixtures in the group stage seems to toughen teams up.

The average distance travelled increases for clubs who went further in the competition, with eventual winners clocking up almost 10,000km as the crow flies compared to less than 8,000km for those who fail to get out of the group.

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An example of this is Barcelona in 2011, who won the competition despite having to travel to Greece, Denmark and Russia: a total distance of 14,769km.

Five years later, Atletico Madrid travelled even further – 17,903km, which is the most by a side from the ‘big five’ European leagues to date – and went on to reach the final.

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In that same year, 2006, Bayern Munich were given one of the least gruelling itineraries in the history of the Champions League draw but crashed out in the round of 16.

The German champions would not have built up much travel sickness with trips to nearby Belgium, Italy and Austria – clocking up fewer than 3,000km – but still lost 5-2 on aggregate to a Milan side that had travelled twice as far during their group games.

Who has travelled the furthest in the Champions League group stage?

While those aforementioned distances were the furthest travelled among the ‘big five’ European leagues, neither represent the current record.

Astana of Kazakhstan were in the same group as Atletico Madrid in 2015/16 but their easterly location saw them travel almost twice as far in total: over 30,000km.

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Five years earlier, Dutch champions FC Twente – who had been steered into the Champions League draw by none other than Steve McClaren – had to travel a total distance of just 2,828km to fulfil their three away fixtures.

Which clubs are the toughest opponents in the Champions League draw?

For clubs from the ‘big five’ European leagues, the target for any group stage is usually qualification. However, being drawn with an English side has seen almost 40% of these teams fail to finish in the top two, making them the trickiest group-stage opponents.

 

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Spanish clubs are the next trickiest, while Ligue 1 teams have proved the weakest opposition with almost four in every five clubs from one of the other major leagues progressing from groups containing a French side.

How many goals are scored in the Champions League group stage?

The group stage of the Champions League has been offering progressively more entertainment for the neutral spectator, with the number of goals rising steadily over time.

In the first year of the current competition format – the 2003/4 season – there were fewer than 2.5 goals per game on average. After a steady upward trend, the three goals per game barrier was broken for the first time in 2017/18 and two seasons later saw a new high of 3.21 reached.

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Three of the last four seasons have now seen more than three goals scored per match on average and it will be intriguing to see how much higher this number can go.

The record for the most goals scored in a single Champions League group was broken fairly recently in 2019/20, when Bayern, Olympiacos, Red Star Belgrade and Tottenham scored a whopping 53 between them. This included Tottenham’s 7-2 defeat to Bayern in the first season at their new stadium.

The previous record of 51 goals – set in 2016/17 – included Dortmund’s 8-4 victory over Legia Warsaw, which was the highest-scoring game in the history of the Champions League.

The lowest-scoring Champions League group saw a paltry 12 goals scored: an average of just one per match. This was in the 2005/6 season when Manchester United finished bottom of Group D, scoring three goals and conceding four.

No other group contested under the current format – dating back to the 2003/4 season – has seen fewer than 17 goals scored, which has happened twice. Coincidentally, one of these low-scoring affairs was also in 2005/6 and marked the only time in history that two clubs from the same nation have been in the same group.

Defending champions Liverpool were given special dispensation to compete in the tournament despite finishing fifth in the Premier League and were grouped with English champions Chelsea in the Champions League draw. Both teams qualified for the knockout stages, scoring 13 of the group’s 17 goals between them and conceding just once each.

How many points do you need in the Champions League group stage?

To have any chance of qualifying from the Champions League group stage you need at least six points; nobody has ever qualified with five or fewer under the current format.

Progression with six points is far from guaranteed though. Of the 34 clubs to have finished with six, only two have made it through: Zenit St Petersburg in 2013/14 and Roma in 2015/16. Both won one game and drew the other three, with Zenit finishing above two teams who managed five points apiece and Roma qualifying by virtue of a superior head-to-head record against Leverkusen.

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The chances of qualifying with six points are not great, but for clubs who earn eight points they are not far off 50-50. No team has ever failed to qualify with 13 points or more, and only one has ever been eliminated with more than 10 points to their name.

This was Napoli – also in 2013/14 – who won four of their six group games but finished third on head-to-head goal difference behind Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal.

How important is it to win a Champions League group?

With the round of 16 being seeded so that group winners are paired with runners-up, that extra push to secure top spot is worth the effort. Just over 70 per cent of teams who finish second in their group are eliminated at the next stage as they tend to be paired with stronger opposition in the Champions League draw.

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This gives first-placed teams a huge advantage overall, with 27 of the 36 finalists under the current Champions League format having topped their group.

When group runners-up have made it all the way to the final, they have fared surprisingly well though. Six of the nine finalists who finished second in the group stage went on to lift the trophy that year, including Liverpool in both 2005 and 2019.

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Author

Andrew McDermott

Andrew is a sports betting content journalist at PA Media. He is a lifelong Huddersfield Town fan but when he isn't reminiscing about their Premier League days he is also a junior cricket coach and enjoys cycling.