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Updated: the consequences of finishing second in your Champions League group

27 March 2011

Arsenal were drawn with Barcelona for finishing second, but does their defeat change the expectations of English clubs failing to top their group? (Flickr: Shht!)

Before the second round of this season’s Champions League I published a post on the consequences for English clubs finishing second in their Champions League group. I was keen to contest the idea that finishing first puts clubs at a distinct advantage in the second round.

The results supported my belief; whilst English clubs never received a favourable draw based on pre-match odds after finishing second, the rates of progress to the quarter finals were almost identical for clubs finishing first (72%) and second (71%).

One of the problems with the original study was the small number of observations; on only 25 occasions had English clubs reached the knockout stages since the tournament’s format was changed in 2003, and only 7 of these clubs finished second. This made for debatable conclusions. I also did not test for statistical significance, though as pointed in the comments, the likelihood is that there was no difference between finishing first or second.

The 2010/11 Champions League season provided the biggest evidence yet for the benefits of finishing first. Arsenal contrived to ruin their campaign with consecutive defeats resulting in a second placed finish, and were drawn with Barcelona, a tie they would eventually lose. Their north London rivals Spurs were also not ‘outright favourites’ (see original post) against AC Milan, but finished first and progressed along with Chelsea and Manchester United, both of whom the booking backed before the tie.

Given these results, one might think this changes the results discussed in the original post. Spurs, Chelsea and United’s progress means that of the 21 occasions English clubs have finished first, 16 have advanced to the quarter finals. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s defeat damages the record of second-placed clubs, who have now progressed on 5 out of 8 occasions. The ‘rates of progression’ therefore become 76.2% and 62.5% respectively. The key question: is this difference statistically significant? Or, in other words, can the difference between these rates of progression be attributed to group placing?

So, using a logit model (for econometricians out there) and testing the impact of finishing first on the probability of progressing to the quarter finals, I find it to be statistically insignificant; that is finishing first has no impact on how likely you are to progress. Even taking into account pre-tie odds, progress to the quarter finals cannot be explained by where English clubs finish in their group.

So despite Arsenal’s failings and other English clubs’ victories, progress to the quarter finals from the second round depends entirely on factors other than where a club finishes in their group. Difficult draws remain for clubs finishing second, but on sufficient occasions English clubs have overcome these difficulties to suggest that the manufactured hype around inconsequential matchday 6s is unjustified.

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