UEFA Champions League Last 16 – an exclusive ’big five’ league show


For the first time ever, the UEFA Champions League knockout stages will comprise only clubs from Europe’s top five championships.

The big five leagues were represented by 19 clubs in the UCL’s group stage, in line with UEFA’s association ranking, which determines the number of teams a league can send to the group stage of a tournament, and 16 of them advanced to the knockout stage. All the top four clubs from both the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga were able to proceed. While the Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga were also eligible to send four clubs to the group stage, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen finished 3rd in their groups and thus were demoted to the Europa League. The French Ligue 1, with three automatic entries, is represented now by two clubs in the knockout phase, with Lille being the one who dropped out after finishing only 4th in their group. With no teams from outside the big five leagues in the Last 16 this season, LaLiga and Serie A managed to grasp one more spot each than they had last year.

In the past decade, on average, non-big five leagues contributed about a fifth of the clubs in the UCL knockout phase. Last year the round of 16 included two teams, Ajax and Porto, from outside the top five leagues: Porto advanced to the quarter-finals, and Ajax – projected by many as a potential surprise winner – were literally seconds away from the final. This season, Porto was not even able to make the group stages, while last season's semi-finalists, Ajax, finished 3rd in their group. These teams' failure is even more symbolic, as they were the last squads outside of the big five leagues capable of winning the competition: Porto in 2004 under Jose Mourinho and, before that, Ajax in 1995 with Louis van Gaal.

Regular participation in the UCL is one of the best ways to raise a club’s revenues and value: the massive income acquired from Champions League football can be invested in better players, and thus a club can repeatedly finish in top spots for their local championships, guaranteeing participation in international competitions again – a virtuous cycle. Indeed, the correlation between squad value and sporting performance is quite spectacular: all the clubs who progressed to the Last 16 this year had higher overall squad values than those who were unable to qualify for the knockout stage, as shown in the chart below:

Beside the current UCL access lists granting altogether 19 direct spots for big five league’s clubs to the group stage, some changes introduced by the new, 3-year (2018-2021) UEFA club competition cycle also seem to be helping cement big five dominance. The new cycle aims at distributing revenues more evenly and thus improving competitive balance: overall financial contributions have been increased significantly to clubs, while the 4-pillar, new financial distribution system (starting fee, performance in the competition, individual club coefficient and market pool) will see the market pool share decreased. However, the new “club coefficient” item in the revenue distribution system can help elite clubs benefit more, as the metric is largely calculated on a club’s historical achievements. In addition, the bigger distribution budget of the new cycle – overall EUR 1.976B a year, EUR 564M more annually than in the previous one – also means that top teams can eventually cash in more, especially as they are more likely to progress to the last stages. Bayern München, for example, received more income from UEFA in the previous season than a year before, despite having played fewer matches due to an earlier elimination. Manchester City cashed in about EUR 35M more from UEFA, while the team reached the same stage of the competition as they had a year earlier. Ajax’ spectacular campaing resulted in collecting EUR 78M of UEFA revenues, which helped them more than double their operating revenues. The prize money on offer is also staggering: the winners of this season’s tournament could cash in a total of EUR 82.45M, provided that they win all their matches. 

The weight of UEFA money in clubs’ total income is also remarkable, and obviously more significant for smaller clubs than for the real giants. This is evident when looking at last year’s semifinalists: that proportion is lowest for Barcelona (14%), highest for Ajax (39%), while both Liverpool and Tottenham collected around a fifth of their total incomes from their UCL campaigns.

Participation in European tournaments affects other revenue streams as well, including matchday and commercial income. A most recent example: Fly Emirates have just announced their new, EUR 20M-a-year main shirt deal with French side Olympique Lyonnais, also more than tripling the club’s current deal with Hyundai. In the meantime, Fly Emirates is to reduce its sponsorship with AC Milan from the current annual EUR 17M down to EUR 14M starting from the next season – both moves in connection with the clubs’ European performance: Lyon have qualified four times to the UCL in the past five seasons, while Milan have not been able to enter the tournament since 2013/14.  

The line-up in this year’s final 16 also underlines the correlation between financial power and on-pitch results more than ever before. With the only exception of RB Leipzig and Atalanta, all the clubs are among the top 38 most valuable football clubs, according to KPMG Football Benchmark’s latest Club Valuation Report, which ranks Europe’s top football clubs by their enterprise value. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that RB Leipzig have yet to reap financial muscle: the club were founded in 2009, finished as runners-up in their debut season in the German top flight and thus were able to qualify for their first UCL participation two years ago, only eight years after their formation. Atalanta are also a newcomer in Europe’s elite, now making debut appearance in the competition.   

The connection between financial strength and sporting performance is also palpable if we look at the top clubs by their total operating revenues in the 2017/18 season: 12 of them were eligible to participate in this year’s UCL, and all (as indicated by the ball icon) have qualified to the knockout stage, with the only exception of Inter Milan, who participated in the group stage but did not advance.

Nevertheless, we see big differences in financial power among the 16 teams – there are four clubs, namely Barcelona, Manchester City, Liverpool and Real Madrid, whose squad value is over EUR 1B, while debutants Atalanta have the squad with the lowest total value of EUR 289M. As a frame of reference, the previous edition of the tournament included two clubs, Schalke and Porto, who competed with squads with a total value of less than EUR 250M each. 

Considering the actual ties in the round of 16, the most balanced fixture is the one between Chelsea and Bayern München, with a difference of only EUR 61M between the two squads, in favour of the English side. Manchester City can boast the most valuable squad with an overall value of over EUR 1,279M, EUR 112M more than their current opponent, Real Madrid. On the other end, Atalanta (with a squad worth EUR 289M) will face Valencia, worth EUR 425M. More unbalanced ties include Lyon vs Juventus and Napoli vs Barcelona, where both the Bianconeri and the Blaugrana squads are worth more than twice as much as their opponents'.

These days, many top football clubs have become global brands and entertainment companies, attracting not only fans, but also customers from all over the world. The connection between football and entertainment is even stronger if we look at the social media performance of these clubs, a crucial part of the way clubs and footballers connect with their fans around the world.

With their established supremacy both on and off the pitch, Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona lead in social media — both can boast more than 225 million followers on their official Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube profiles. In comparison, second-time participant RB Leipzig and new joiners Atalanta both have only less than 1 million followers on these channels.

But that is surely to change. RB Leipzig and Atalanta have already seen their followership grow by 7% and 6%, respectively, solely through their successful group stage performances. The past season has provided some spectacular and inspiring examples, proving that UCL performance can significantly increase the popularity of a club. Semi-finalists Barcelona gained 14.6 million new social media fans from the group stage to the end of the tournament, while title winners Liverpool were capable of adding 11 million new followers on their social media channels. Ajax’s fantastic campaign (eliminating Real Madrid in the Last 16 and Juventus in the quarter finals) helped them grow their social media followership by 3 million. Runners-up Tottenham gained 4 million new social media fans in the same period, marked by their wins over Manchester City and Ajax.

The gains on offer for participants in the latter stages of the Champions League is growing, while the pool of regular contenders is gradually shrinking. It also appears inevitable that the trend is set to continue with the bigger and richer clubs continuing to benefit more from the tournament.