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UEFA’s gradual increasing in the size of the Champions League has been justified in many ways. The inclusion of teams from smaller markets not only exposes those markets to the Champions League, but further exposes the Champions League to those markets – show the circus on TV, and millions watch; bring the circus to town, and millions care. The cynic in me would suggest that as the former Soviet teams have become financial powerhouses (Zenit – signing Hulk and Axel Witsel!) then the Champions League is already set bigger, and can more easily accommodate them all. I try not to be too cynical, though, and I want to see whether the markets (most particularly the domestic leagues) to which Champions League football is a rarity, or a novelty, have benefited from its arrival.

This post is going to be split across two ideas, then. The first is to see – within the Champions League – if the smaller market clubs have made any impression, or whether their appearances is just there to make up the numbers. An obvious example of such an event is FC Porto; Portuguese clubs have got a great record at this and, because of the way qualification works, they are often under-represented. If the Russian league had run over the winter before, I suspect we might have seen a similar thing with them, too. The second idea is to look at how those smaller market champions have gone on to fare in their own league after their Champions League exertions because the point of the Champions League is to benefit the game in the countries of its entrants. It would be no good if (as an extreme example) a Saudi Arabian team entered, lost all their six games heavily, and then none of their players were able to move on to other competing nations anyway. That’s for next time, though.

Is There Any Point In Smaller Clubs In The Champions League?

Since 1999, 103 teams have been their country’s sole representative in the Champions League. They average 5.54 points over that time – that’s obviously not an amount that would qualify a team.Its not all been doom and gloom, though; in only 3 of those seasons, and not since 05/06, has one sole-representative team failed to get 10 points – which very much would qualify a team. That means that in (practically) every last 16 there has been at least one team who were its nation’s sole representative in the Champions League; but there’s a few interesting patterns; most notably the resurgent ‘average points’ graph below.

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That alone suggests that UEFA realised something was wrong, but have been doing something right in the last few years. I’m a firm believer that the best Champions League groups are the ones that are the most even, so if the (previously) worse teams are improving, then the balance within the groups is better. There are no free rides any more; as evidenced by Manchester Utd and Manchester City’s drop into the Europa League last season. The individual teams are rising, yearly. All that said, the one-nation-teams are generally weaker than their counterparts with two or three other teams. The following relief tables show the frequency of points tallies for the years I’ve looked at – the first one for the individual teams, the second for all teams. Obviously, the further to the right the ripples, the more points teams have got. The individual teams generally are on the left hand side; slightly lower than average – and the upper end, at about 12 points, is consistent throughout the period; indeed, the only point they congregate other than the first year’s seven is when in around four points – not a qualification tally. I haven’t really used these relief maps before, but I like the width and clarity they offer.

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So how have they been doing it?

Well, here’s those same teams’ goals for and against (per game) set on a more conventional graph; as much as 04/05 and 05/06 were clearly the tipping point – as we saw before – there’s a definite trend to both scoring and conceding more goals. That, to me, suggests that a lot of the lesser lights are trying to win games, rather than avoid losing; last year alone, Basel and Olympiakos won 3 games apiece, while APOEL qualified with 2 wins – the year before Shakhtar won five games (and Copenhagen 3). To be able to beat teams, or at least hold their own, is an encouraging sign.

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If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering if there’s any trends among nations in this 1 representative group. There isn’t anything particularly to work with (and in a lot of cases the sample size is minimal at best), but it is noticeable that the two longest lines (therefore worst average goal difference) are two of the three nations who have only had one team in the groups in that period (Sweden and Slovenia, tied for 3rd on -1.67 have had 2 and 1 respectively) – which, if nothing else, suggests that the more often nations get clubs into the group stages, the better they do. Cyprus’ -0.17 is impressive indeed – second only to Ukraine’s -0.12 – by the way. Congratulations to them (or Συγχαρητήρια σε Κύπρος, if you’d rather).

ucl5.jpgWhat has this told us?

I’m quite encouraged by all of this. It looks as if UEFA’s revamp of the Champions League has given it actual breadth; so their big guns – their Barcelonas and Madrids – will end up playing in different places every few years. What this has done, too, is move the Champions League back towards the Champions concept – as the 1 representative teams are champions of their respective leagues, and the teams who have been reduced are the ‘lesser’ teams from the higher ranked nations. All indications point to the fact that the 1 representative teams have, recently, been improving their performance and, furthermore, that if teams appear in the Champions League once and really suffer, if either they or a country mate feature in another season, they will (most likely) fare better the next time. Long may it continue.

So, who are we looking out for in 2012/13?

The one per nation teams in the group stages this season number nine and there’s some familiar faces (indeed, one former winner) and some unfamiliar faces, too. Anderlecht (BEL), BATE Borisov (BRS), Dinamo Zagreb (CRO), Nordsjælland (DEN), Olympiacos (GRE), Ajax (NED), CFR Cluj (ROM), Celtic (SCO), Galatasaray (TUR). I quite fancy Olympiacos to get the most points of those, but I wouldn’t stake any money on it.

Next in this series, I look at the result of these teams’
participation within their domestic leagues.

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