UEFA announce new club competition "Europa League 2": what it is, how it will work, and what it means for Portuguese football
UEFA have confirmed the introduction of a third European club competition in 2021, given the working title "UEL2", which will see more sides than ever before competing in continental tournaments per year.
The competition is the latest innovation from UEFA, who say that it will make club competitions on the continent "more inclusive than ever before", following on from the introduction of the UEFA Nations League.
The new format will see the current Europa League reduced in size from 48 teams in the group stage to 32.
What is the Europa League 2?
In essence, UEL2 will serve as a third level on the European stage; with the Champions League serving as Europe's most prestigious club competition and the Europa League the continent's secondary tournament, The Europa League 2 will be the third tier, building what is essentially a league system but for the continent rather than for an individual nation.
The winner of the Europa League will earn "promotion" into the following year's edition of the Champions League, and the winner of the UEL2 will be "promoted" to the next version of the Europa League in what is essentially a pyramid system.
The competition will be mainly aimed at sides playing in the top flights of lower ranked national leagues, with sides outside the top 15 leagues in the UEFA coefficient ranking no longer being eligible to compete in the Europa League.
This means that there is a significant change in the participants of the Europa League, which will instead be just for club sides competing in one of the top 15 national leagues.
How will it work?
The competition will feature 32 teams in total, the same number as the Champions League and what will also be the same number as the Europa League. These 32 teams, as is the case in the Champions League, will be divided into eight groups of 4, from A to H. Each side will play each other twice, once home and once away.
The top side in each group will advance to the the next round of the competition (round of 16) automatically, while the sides that finished 2nd in the group will advance to the playoff round, where they will play against the teams that finish 3rd in the Europa League. The winners of these two-legged fixtures will advance to the round of sixteen of the UEL2, joining the sides that finished top of the UEL2 groups.
From here, it follows the same pattern of the current Champions League and Europa League, with a knockout system played over two legs up to the final. The overall winner of the tournament would earn qualification to the Europa League.
Matches for UEL2 will occur at 15:30 on Thursday afternoons, with exception the final that will occur on the Wednesday before the Champions League final, while Europa League matches will continue to be played on the same day (Thursday) and, as we have become accustomed to, at 17:55 and 20:00, so there will be no clash between the UEL and UEL2 fixtures.
What does this mean for the Champions League and Europa League?
Apart from the Europa League changing from 48 to 32 participants in the group stage, both the Champions League and Europa League remain largely unchanged, but the main noteworthy alteration applies to sides that finish third in the Champions League and 2nd in the Europa League.
This is because, as was the case between the UEL and UEL2, sides that finish 3rd in the Champions League will face the sides that finish 2nd in the Europa League in a playoff stage, the winners then joining each of the sides that topped their Europa League groups in the Europa League round of sixteen. So all runners-up in the Europa League will now have to face - and beat - a third place outfit from the Champions League to advance.
Another significant change applies to the Europa League, which will, from 2021, only include teams from nations ranked inside UEFA's top 15. That means nations such as Scotland, Croatia and Czech Republic would no longer have representatives in Europe's secondary competition - unless they manage to improve their coefficient sufficiently within the next three years - or win the UEL2.
What does this all mean for Portugal?
In terms of the Champions League, nothing changes. Portugal, as long as they stay where they are in the nation coefficient ranking, will continue to have one team automatically qualify for the group stage of Europe's top competition (the league winner), while 2nd place would enter the third qualifying round and would need to win 2 two-legged fixtures to reach the group stage. Things change quite significantly in the Europa League though.
Firstly, Portugal, ranked 7th in the current UEFA coefficient, are well within the top 15 nations, and therefore are still able to continue to have representatives in the Europa League for the foreseeable future. But the number of potential Europa League competitors will be heavily reduced, from 3 to just 1.
Currently, the winner of the Portuguese Cup automatically qualify for the Europa League group stage, while the sides that finish 3rd and 4th in the league enter the third and second qualifying round respectively.
However, under the new system and after the introduction of the third continental club competition, Portugal will have NO team automatically qualify for the Europa League, with winning the cup no longer securing a place in the group stage.
Instead, the teams that finishes 3rd in the Primeira Liga will be the only side capable of representing Portugal in the Europa League proper, with finishing 4th in Portugal no longer sufficient to make the Europa League. The team that finishes 3rd in Portugal will also have to play - and win - a single two-legged tie to qualify for the Europa League group stage.
There are two ways that Portugal could potentially end up with more than one representative in the Europa League. The first way is if the team that finishes 2nd in the Portuguese Primeira Liga end up losing their Champions League playoff; if that happened, they would drop into the Europa League. The second way is if a Portuguese side wins the UEL2. But there is now a significant chance that Portugal will have no representatives in the Europa League in some editions of the contest from 2021 onwards.
The 4th and 5th placed sides in Portugal would then be given the opportunity to advance to the UEL2; they would enter the third and second qualifying stage respectively, so would have to win two or three two-legged ties to make the group stage.
To illustrate the changes, we can use the current league table. So, if the league were to finish today, Porto would advance to the Champions League group stage and Braga to the Champions League third qualifying round, while Benfica would enter the Europa League playoff.
Sporting and Rio Ave would then have the chance to make the UEL2 group stage, entering the 3rd and 2nd qualifying round respectively.
A comparison between the current system and the new system is shown below: