It's too late, Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund may think, but the way the Champions League seeding pots are arranged has changed, rewarding those sides who were national champions last season rather than those who have had consistently good performances in European competition over the past five years.
What that means in practice is that come Thursday’s draw (11:45 a.m. ET), seven seeds will be looking to avoid Real Madrid.
Every club has a coefficient based on an average of points gained (awarding a notional three points for a win, one point for a tie in knockout matches as well as the group games) in European competition over the past five years, with bonuses for reaching certain stages and a weighting according to performances from other teams from that league in European competition over the previous five years.
That meant that when Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga in 2012, because it had limited European experience, it was seeded in Pot 4, while City, which had just won the Premier League, was in Pot 2. Juventus, the Italian champion, returning to the highest level after being relegation over the Calciopoli scandal, was in Pot 3.
There was the potential for perhaps the deadliest group of death ever–that would effectively have punished the team from Pot 1 for the arriviste nature of the champions of England, Italy and Germany.
While that was avoided, what actually came out was still pretty imposing: Real Madrid, Manchester City, the Dutch champions Ajax, and Dortmund. Fun as that was for the neutral–and, ultimately for Dortmund–it was accepted that it was bad both for the clubs involved and also for the competition: it needs its big guns in the latter stages.
Had this year’s seedings been calculated by coefficient, the top eight would have featured three teams from Spain, two from Germany and Portugal and one from England. The presence of Porto and Benfica in the list is perhaps a little surprising–and based in some degree on Europa League performance–but even with their presence that gives some idea of how clubs from a handful of European leagues have come to dominate.
The decision that Pot 1 this year would feature the reigning European champion, plus the champions of the seven highest-ranked domestic leagues in Europe (as Barcelona won both the Champions League and La Liga last season, the champion of the eighth-ranked league, PSV Eindhoven, is seeded as well this year) is an attempt to–at least cosmetically–redress that balance and make it a more pan-continental competition again.
So the eight seeds are Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris St.-Germain, Benfica, PSV and Zenit St. Petersburg, of whom arguably only the first five have a realistic chance of winning the title. PSV, in particular, is a little fortunate to be there: it would be in Pot 3 under the old system–and, although it won the Dutch league impressively last season, Philip Cocu’s side has suffered the familiar fate of Dutch champions and lost a couple of key players to wealthier sides: Memphis Depay to Manchester United and Georginio Wijnaldum to Newcastle.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
Zenit St. Petersburg
That means some big names in Pot 2 and, even with teams from the same nation being kept apart, that means the potential for some big-name clashes in the group stage. There is, for instance, a 1-in-2 chance of Barcelona facing a Premier League team, a 3-in-5 chance of Chelsea facing a Pot 2 team from La Liga, and a 6-in-7 chance of Bayern Munich facing a Pot 2 side from England or Spain.
What really makes a group tough, though, is less the second team than it is the third team: with two good sides and two weaker ones, the only issue is who comes top and who comes second (which could have longer-term ramifications in terms of knockout matchups). In Pot 3, the top-seeded side is Shakhtar Donetsk. Mircea Lucescu’s side is perhaps not the force it once was, but nobody will relish a trip to Ukraine at the moment. As Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk’s run to the Europa League final last season showed, there’s nothing like a war to inspire patriotic feeling. Ukrainian champion Dynamo Kyiv, meanwhile, is also in that pot and has improved significantly under Serhiy Rebrov.
Sevilla, the fifth Spanish team, is in that pot thanks to another change to the regulations that the winner of the Europa League now qualifies for the Champions League. It has seen a lot of changes from last season, with Carlos Bacca and Aleix Vidal the major departures, but its coach Unai Emery has shown how good he is at setting his side up for continental fixtures.
In Pot 4, Wolfsburg is probably the team to avoid, having finished second in the Bundesliga, but it will be a diminished force if, as seems imminent, Kevin De Bruyne’s transfer to Manchester City is confirmed this week. Astana’s win over APOEL means there will be a lengthy trip to Kazakhstan for the first time in the Champions League group stage, but the difficulty that presents is likely to be more logistical than anything else.
The new format appears to open the possibility of more high-profile clashes between English, Spanish and German sides in the group stage, but jeopardy comes from Pot 3, and that is little changed. A group with Barcelona and Manchester City or Bayern Munich and Real Madrid together would look glamorous but even then both would expect to beat a Roma, a Dynamo Kyiv or a Lyon from Pot 3.
Just as ever, the group stages should largely be about jockeying before the real business of the knockouts; it’s just a slightly different form of jockeying this time around.