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Does coming second in your group affect your Champions League hopes?

23 February 2011

Liverpool topped their group in 2008-09, but still drew the mighty Real Madrid (RAFA RIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Come the final round of matches in the Champions League group stage, and most managers and pundits will tell you the value of topping your group so as to theoretically avoid tougher opponents in the second round.

There’s enough evidence this season to suggest this largely holds true – Manchester United, Chelsea and to an extent Spurs all received easier draws than Arsenal’s tie with Barcelona, despite the Gunners’ first leg heroics.

But has this been the case since the 2003-04 season, when UEFA changed the tournament’s second round format from a group stage to a two-legged knockout tie? I’ve looked at English clubs’ involvement of each of these seasons, and observed whether clubs do receive easier draws for topping their group, and whether this affects their overall chances in the competition.

Much like the analysis of Premier League title races, I’ll look at each season individually, before pulling it all together to analyse in greater detail. A significant amount of the analysis depends on the evaluation of whether the draw is easy or tough for the English club involved. To assess this, I’ve looked at pre-match odds for the second round matches in question, and determined whether the English team involved was the outright favourite or not.

This is not quite as straightforward as it sounds, as odds are only available for the individual matches, rather than the tie as a whole, so whilst there is a method to verify whether the English club was a favourite, there is an element of discretion. For instance, in 2007/08, Man United were the bookies favourites in both legs against Lyon, and hence are considered ‘outright favourites’ for that tie. In the same season, Liverpool were slight favourites at home to Inter Milan, but outsiders at the San Siro, and cannot be considered outright favourites. Whilst the 2-0 win at Anfield may have influenced the second leg odds (Liverpool could afford a 1-0 defeat), it’s still fair to suggest that Liverpool were not the clear favourites over the two legs anyway. It must be noted that not being ‘outright favourites’ does not mean the English club’s opponent being ‘outright favourites’ instead; more often than not it simply means the tie was seen as a potentially close contest.

All pre-match odds are courtesy of betexplorer.com, who provide an outstanding scope of historical odds.

As ever, if you feel any of these judgements are in question, please feel free to comment in the appropriate space below this post.

2003-04

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Chelsea 1 Sparta Prague Stuttgart Yes 1-0 Semi
Arsenal 1 Lokomotiv Moscow Celta Vigo Yes 5-2 Quarter
Man United 1 Stuttgart Porto Yes 2-3 Second
Newcastle Qualifiers

The teams are all listed by final round reached in the tournament. Newcastle failed to qualify for the group stage – the only club to do so in the period in question. Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United all topped their groups and faced opponents they were expected to beat in the second round. United, however, fell to Mourinho’s Porto, a result that was a surprise at the time if not so much now, given Mourinho’s reputation.

2004-05

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Liverpool 2 AS Monaco Bayer Leverkusen No 6-2 Winners
Chelsea 1 Porto Barcelona No 5-4 Semi
Arsenal 1 PSV Bayern Munich No 2-3 Second
Man United 2 Lyon AC Milan No 0-1 Second

Liverpool scraped into the knockout stages thanks to Steven Gerrard’s goal against Olympiacios, and were subsequently not overly favoured by bookies. No team received an easy draw on paper, with the other three clubs receiving European heavyweights despite Arsenal and Chelsea topping their groups.

2005-06

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Arsenal 1 Ajax Real Madrid No 1-0 Runner Up
Chelsea 2 Liverpool Barcelona No 2-3 Second
Liverpool 1 Chelsea Benfica Yes 0-3 Second
Man United 4 Villarreal, Benfica Group Stage

Man United suffered a terrible campaign, eliminated bottom of their group, whilst Liverpool’s lengthy qualification route meant a group stage pairing with Chelsea. The final group positions led to draws of predictable difficulty, whilst Arsenal were perhaps unlucky to draw Real Madrid despite coming top of their group.

2006-07

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Liverpool 1 PSV Barcelona No 2-2 (a) Runner Up
Chelsea 1 Barcelona Porto Yes 3-2 Semi
Man United 1 Celtic Lille Yes 2-0 Semi
Arsenal 1 Porto PSV Yes 1-2 Second

In the only season where all four English clubs topped their respective groups, Liverpool drew the short straw in the form of Barcelona, who had come second to Chelsea in their group. All other clubs received favourable draws.

2007-08

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Man United 1 Roma Lyon Yes 2-1 Winners
Chelsea 1 Schalke Olympiacos Yes 3-0 Runner Up
Liverpool 2 Porto Inter Milan No 3-0 Semi
Arsenal 2 Sevilla AC Milan No 2-0 Quarter

This season provided clear evidence of the benefits of topping one’s group, as Man United and Chelsea received ties in which they were clear favourites, whilst Liverpool and Arsenal were drawn against the two Milan teams; neither side were heavily backed by bookmakers.

2008-09

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Man United 1 Villarreal Inter Milan No 2-0 Runner Up
Arsenal 2 Porto Roma No 1-1 (7-6) Semi
Chelsea 2 Roma Juventus No 3-2 Semi
Liverpool 1 Atletico Madrid Real Madrid No 5-0 Quarter

United, Arsenal and Chelsea drew difficult Italian opponents in the second round, with the London clubs coming second in their group. Both United and Liverpool were not ‘rewarded’ with their group stage performances, and arguably received even tougher draws.

2009-10

Team Group Stage Position Other Group Stage Qualifier Second Round Opponents Outright favourite? Aggregate Result Final Round
Arsenal 1 Olympiacos Porto No 6-2 Quarter
Man United 1 CSKA Moscow AC Milan Yes 7-2 Quarter
Chelsea 1 Porto Inter Milan No 1-3 Second
Liverpool 3 Fiorentina, Lyon Group Stage

Liverpool failed to progress whilst the other members of the ‘big four’ all topped relatively straightforward groups. Oddly, only Manchester United were heavily favoured over both legs; bookies backed Porto at home to the Gunners whilst they also saw a tight encounter in Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea with Inter Milan.

Summary, analysis and conclusions

Of the 28 times English clubs qualified for the Champions League, on only 3 occasions did clubs failed to progress to the second round (Newcastle 2003-04, Man United 2005-06 and Liverpool 2009-10), a fantastic achievement given the tournament features Europe’s elite.

We can break down the draws for the English clubs as follows:

Position Second round progression when outright favourites Second round elimination when outright favourites Second round progression when not outright favourites Second round elimination when not outright favourites Total
1 7 3 6 2 18
2 5 2 7
Total 7 3 11 4 25

The statistics back up the belief: topping your group generally results in easier draws, even though teams have drawn the likes of Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for their efforts.

Equally, coming second in your group has never resulted in an easy draw. This is perhaps in part from bookmakers less likely to favour a weaker English team (as judged by their second placed finish), but also from the quality of opposition the teams have generally drawn.

But one question that hasn’t really been asked is this: are English clubs so strong that it doesn’t really matter where they finish anyway? These statistics seem to suggest so:

  • Of the 18 occasions an English team has come first their group, 13 have progressed from the second round, a success rate of 72.2%.
  • Of the 7 occasions an English team has come second in their group, 5 have progressed from the second round, a success rate of 71.4%.

Whilst admittedly dealing in a relatively small number of cases, it’s remarkable that the success rate of progression to the quarter finals is virtually the same for clubs finishing first and second in the group stage, despite the fact that teams coming second have always received tough draws.

By allocating each round a number (second: 1, quarters: 2, semis: 3, runner up: 4, winners: 5), we can average the distance teams went depending on the group position:

  • Teams who finished first in their group averaged 2.57, or around a semi final place
  • Teams who finished second in their group averaged 2.56, or around a semi final place

Again, the position you come in your group does not affect your final performance in the competition. This is perhaps less surprising, given draws are not seeded from the quarter finals onwards.

Perhaps results against tougher opposition galvanise a team in the competition, giving them belief that they can beat anyone? Again, using the same system as above:

  • Teams who finished first in their group, and beat an easy opponent in the second round averaged 3.14, or around a semi final place
  • Teams who finished second in their group, and beat a tough opponent in the second round averaged 3.2, or around a semi final place.

For good measure, teams that finished first in their group and beat a tough opponent in the second round averaged 3.17, or again around a semi final place. The evidence suggests it doesn’t really matter who you beat; your progress in the tournament, given progression to the quarter finals, will on average be the semi final stage.

Here are some final conclusions:

  • Coming first in the group stage generally rewards you with an easier draw, but certainly doesn’t guarantee one.
  • There’s no denying that coming second in your group provides you with a tough draw; no English club has escaped that fate so far.
  • However, regardless of whether you finish first or second in your group, you have just over a 7 in 10 chance of progressing to the quarter finals.
  • Equally, the position of qualification from your group does not determine your fate for the entire tournament, teams on average will crash out at the same stage.
  • Beating stronger teams in the second round doesn’t have a hugely significant impact on your performance for the rest of the tournament.

The topic will no doubt be one revisited every December, and is well worth another look in May after the current Champions League season ends, particularly as there are currently only a small number of observations.

However, the general point to learn remains: don’t get too fussed about where your team comes in the group stage, they’ll probably get as far as other English clubs.

Note: An update for this post including results in the 2010/11 season can be read here.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. ebenz permalink
    21 March 2011 10:48 pm

    Given your small sample size (which you already acknowledged), a difference of 72% to 71% hardly seems significant – regardless of your (statistical) confidence level.

    • 21 March 2011 10:59 pm

      I believe that’s my point – it doesn’t matter where you come, your chance of progression is the same (i.e. statistically insignificant difference between progression rates of first and second-placed teams). Not that I have the statistical know-how to perform the test.

      The averages will change after this season though, with Spurs, Chelsea and United all topping their groups and reaching the quarter finals, making it 16/21 or a 76.2% success rate, and Arsenal coming second and losing, making it 5/8 or a 62.5% success rate.

      If you have any suggestions on the statistical approach to this, please let me know! Only have the very basics when it comes to stats!

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  1. Updated: the consequences of finishing second in your Champions League group « 5 Added Minutes

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