The Not-Quite Champions League

By Jonathan White Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-28 5:03:02

Taking the long road to European glory

Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates scoring against Club Brugge during the second leg of their Champions League qualifying-round playoff on Wednesday in Brugge, Belgium. Photo: CFP

Sevilla, who finished fifth place in La Liga last season, are one of five Spanish teams who stand a chance to lift Europe's most prestigious trophy next May. This is because the 2015-16 Champions League is the first to extend an invitation to the winners of the previous season's Europa League in UEFA's latest change to the format of what was once the European Champions Cup. Sevilla went straight into the group stage, instead of having to negotiate a playoff game, because Barcelona won both the Champions League and La Liga meaning that the spot reserved for the holders was unused.

Since the tournament became the Champions League, there have been a number of format changes and expansions, the most notable of which came in 1997-98 when teams who were not the champions of their respective domestic leagues were allowed to enter the fray. Since then we have enjoyed a European Super League in all but name, with only 13 different winners in the 23 seasons since the rebranding.

However, that familiarity has not come at the expense of unpredictability. Clubs who have had to go through the qualifying stages have performed admirably and even won the tournament. In 1998-99, Manchester United were the first team to lift the Champions League after having to go through qualifying and in doing so became the first-ever champions of Europe who were not the previous winners of their domestic league or the holders.

Since then the floodgates have opened. The following season Valencia were losing finalists after coming in through qualifying and Bayer Leverkusen repeated that feat in the 2001-02 tournament. Milan became the next winners of the Champions League to have entered through the back door in 2002-03 and Liverpool did the same, coming back to famously beat Milan in the final, in 2004-05. Those teams both came through the qualifying stages in 2007-08 to stage a rematch of the final in Istanbul three years earlier with Milan running out the winners on this occasion and Barcelona took the long way to winning the Champions League a year later.

For the 2009-10 season, the qualifying route changed to become the champions and non-champions paths. This was an effort by UEFA to guarantee that the champions of smaller nations stood more of a chance of making it to the group stage rather than constantly lose out to a club that had finished third or fourth in the bigger leagues. From that day on, when a maximum of five non-champions can enter the draw, the best that either path of qualifying has managed is semifinal appearances from Lyon in 2009-10 and Bayern in 2011-12.

Will this be the year that the non-champions route finally provides a winner? Will Sevilla make history as the first holders of the Europa League to win the following season's Champions League? Here's a look at who they are.

Manchester United are undoubtedly the biggest of the clubs to enter this way. The three-times champions of Europe return to the fold after a year with no continental competition and anything less than making the knockouts will be a failure for Louis van Gaal and his charges after record investment. The Dutchman would like to add another Champions League to his CV after triumphing with Ajax in 1994-95.

Bayer Leverkusen

The Germans were regulars in the tournament's latter stages in the early 2000s but their fourth-place finish in the Bundesliga, 18 points behind champions Bayern Munich, is more indicative of their current status. Bayer eased past Lazio in the playoffs and their mix of youth and experience could cause teams problems, as could the dead ball expertise of Turkish playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu. Their fate depends on them holding on to star players in the transfer window.


The Spaniards return after a three-year absence and have Alvaro Negredo to thank. His goal provided an aggregate victory over Monaco and created history as they became the fifth Spanish team to qualify - a first for any nation. They finished just a point behind third-placed Atletico Madrid last term but Valencia's hopes depend on their trio of high-profile signings from Benfica - former loanees Rodrigo and Andre Gomes and new boy Enzo Perez.

CSKA Moscow

The Russian runners-up overcame Sporting ­Lisbon to make it to Europe's top table and it is telling that it was home advantage that saw them get a 3-1 win to go through 4-3 on aggregate. No one will want to travel to Moscow as the nights draw in but long journeys for each away game and a lengthy winter break tend to spell doom for Russian clubs in the Champions League.

Shakhtar Donetsk

Despite currently playing in Lviv, rather than Donetsk, because of ongoing turmoil in the country, Shakhtar finished as Ukranian Premier League runners-up. They survived a late rally from Rapid Vienna to make it through to the group stages for the sixth successive year. Matching their quarterfinal appearance of 2010-11 will depend on how well Alex Teixera shoulders the loss of fellow Brazilians Douglas Costa and Luiz Adriano. 


The Andalusians have won the last two Europa Leagues so clearly know how to triumph in European competition. They made the round of 16 in both of their previous appearances in the Champions League and there is nothing to say that Unai Emery's new-look side can't go at least that far again despite selling last season's top scorer Carlos Bacca.

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