Spain's set for historic UCL group stage with five entrants
By Leo Linden
During the conclusion of the playoff round this week, the final 10 teams punched their tickets to the most lucrative competition on the planet, the UEFA Champions League. This year’s competition will be different, though, as offseason tweaks to the qualification rules now allow five teams from a single nation to compete in the tournament should the stars align. Sure enough, La Liga’s performance domestically as well as in the Champions and Europa Leagues last year, combined with Valencia knocking out Monaco on Tuesday, confirmed that the strongest country in Europe (at least at the top) have five competitors in the Champions League group stages.
Though allotting one of 54 European footballing nations over 15 percent of the group stage is a ton of weight to put on one country, Spain has earned the right by being brilliant not just for a year, but over a period of time. For the last five seasons, Spain has had two teams in the final four of the tournament, and while they aren’t always victorious, their performance in the competition as a country has been unmatched. Rightfully, Spain has risen to the top of the UEFA country coefficient rankings, allowing them three berths to the group stage and the previously mentioned berth to the playoff round.
But what truly sets Spain apart is how its sides perform in the Europa League, and it’s
benefiting them in the UCL this year. Unlike many major clubs, especially English sides, which often send their second squads to the field in Europe’s secondary club competition, Spanish teams push hard for the UEL title every year, and they have been rewarded, coming out victorious in four of the last six finals. With the aforementioned rule changes in affect, which allow the Europa League winner entrance to the following year’s Champions League, Sevilla’s win over Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk four months ago becomes even bigger following a fifth-place La Liga finish that left them one short of qualifying for the UCL domestically.
While the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) will be buzzing from getting five teams in, the rest of Europe’s task to dethrone Spain as the top dogs just got even more challenging. All of the La Liga participants are protected from being in the same group or playing each other in the round of 16, so the five teams will be able to spread out and wreak havoc on the rest of the field.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are almost certainly progressing out of the group stage (and further), and Atletico Madrid should only fall that early if their draw is horrible (which could happen under the new seeding rules). Valencia and Sevilla are not sure ins to the knockout stage, but the sides have already proven their worth to even get here by navigating tricky competitions both domestically and in Europe. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one or both progress through the group stage.
If all goes according to its ideal plan, the RFEF will see five of its teams through the final 16, with each having its own shot to progress further. It’s almost impossible and way too early to make predictions that far ahead, but the fact that it’s even a possibility — and a fairly realistic one at that — says a lot about the European football landscape. Spain is the dominant force of the moment, and the world could easily be watching a handful of teams battling it out for both Spanish superiority and European glory come spring.