Right now, Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, and arguably even West Ham United are all battling to clinch one of the English Premier League's top four spots. As in previous years, the top four clubs in the division this season will qualify for the Champions League-with the top three earning entry into the group stage and the fourth-place club heading into the final play-off round.
The race for these four slots is even more intense this year, given the fact that last year's EPL champion-Chelsea FC-has very little chance of qualifying for the Champions League. As such, clubs that haven't traditionally qualified for Europe's most prestigious tournament in the past-Leicester, Tottenham, and West Ham are getting ever close to breaking the cycle in 2016.
But what if England didn't get four spots in the Champions League? Recent rumors have suggested that the Premier League could, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be at risk of losing that fourth spot to the Italian Serie A.
How the Allocation of Champions League Spots Works
To understand why England might lose its fourth Champions League slot, we first have to understand how the UEFA decides which countries and divisions get the most slots anyway. Based on the current UEFA system, three top-flight national leagues are allocated four spots in the Champions League. Right now, those leagues are the Spanish La Liga, the German Bundesliga, and the EPL.
The UEFA essentially ranks different countries and their football associations based on recent performances in European competitions. Much like in tournaments, clubs receive differing point totals for wins and draws (and no points for losses). Extra points are awarded to clubs as they reach different levels of the Champions League or Europa League tournaments-such as the quarterfinals, semifinals, or championship match.
The UEFA takes these point totals and uses them to calculate a "coefficient." Per the UEFA website, "the coefficient is calculated by working out an average score: dividing the number of points obtained, by the total number of clubs representing an association in that season's two club competitions." These numbers, finally, are "tallied with the results of the previous four soccer seasons to calculate the coefficient."
The Coefficients As They Stand
The coefficient rankings (which you can view here) are updated after each round of Champions League or Europa League competition. Currently, ahead of the second leg of the UCL round of 16, the La Liga is leading the way by a considerable margin, with a coefficient point total of 97.713. The Bundesliga trails in second, with 77.177, while England is third, with 73.909.
England's problem is Italy. Right now, the Serie A is in fourth in the coefficient rankings, with a point tally of 70.272. If the Serie A's total climbs just a bit more, or the Premier League's total falls, then Italy could feasibly push into third. If or when that happens, the Serie A would win four Champions League slots while the Premier League would only be allocated three.
The good news for England is that, at this juncture, there are still six Premier League football clubs participating in European competition. That could, of course, change with the second leg of the Champions League, set to take place this week. Right now, though, England still has three teams in the UCL (Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal) and three in the Europa League (Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, and Liverpool).
By comparison, Italy only has three teams left across the two competitions: JuventusÂ and Roma in the Champions League and Lazio in the Europa League. Those smaller numbers will make it difficult for Italy to displace England from the third place slot on UEFA's coefficient rankings-at least this year.
England's European Decline
Still, it's worth mentioning that England's UEFA coefficient ranking has slid significantly in recent years. The big problem is a lack of European titles for Premier League soccer teams. The last English football club to win the UCL was Chelsea, who beat Bayern Munich to clinch their first title in the tournament at the end of the 2011/12 season. Incidentally, the Blues were also the last English squad to win the Europa League, beating out Benfica for that title at the end of 2012/13.
The lack of titles (or, for that matter, runner-up finishes) has led to England losing ground in the coefficient rankings with each passing year. The UEFA coefficients consider season point totals from the current campaign and each of the preceding four soccer seasons. In other words, right now, European results dating back to Chelsea's 2011/12 are still being tallied as part of the coefficient rankings.
At the start of next season, the 2011/12 results will no longer figure into the coefficients, which will hurt England more than any other division. According to ESPN FC, the removal of that season from the ranking consideration will result in Italy "gain[ing] 3.893 points on England and Germany at the start of 2016/17." So England will either need to turn on the heat this season or dominate the European circuit next season (if not both) to hold onto that fourth Champions League slot.
English Clubs and Their Chances in 2015/16 European Tournaments
The reason Spain is so far ahead of every other country on the UEFA coefficient rankings table is that La Liga clubs have won both the Champions League and the Europa League in each of the past two seasons. In 2013/14, Real Madrid clinched the UCL title (beating Atletico Madrid to do it, no less), while Sevilla took the UEL trophy. In 2014/15, Barcelona rolled to the Champions League win, and Sevilla won a second consecutive Europa League.
Those victories gave Spain huge point totals of 23.000 and 20.214 for those respective years and more or less guaranteed the La Liga four Champions League spots for the foreseeable future. Winning one title this season would safeguard England's position against Italy for next season. Winning two would help protect the Premier League's four UCL slots for several years to come.
The question is, could a European title be in the cards for an English football club in 2016? With Barcelona still firing on all cylinders (not to mention the presence of other recent victors like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich), the Champions League might be a bit out of reach. Chelsea acquitted themselves well enough in their first round of 16 match against Paris Saint Germain, escaping the away leg with just a 1-2 loss and nearly forcing a draw. Arsenal weren't as lucky, losing 0-2 to Barcelona on their home turf. Both teams are predicted to exit the tournament in the next few days-though Chelsea isn't down and out just yet.
England's best chances rest on the shoulders of Manchester City, who, despite some dodgy domestic matches in the past month, won their first round of 16 match against Dynamo Kyiv. Since the Sky Blues triumphed 2-0 in the away leg, they should have no problem earning a spot in the quarterfinals. But will Man City be able to contend with the top teams from Spain, Germany, and Italy in later rounds?
As the UEL only just moved beyond the round of 32, it's too early to make any concrete predictions about the outcome of that tournament. Manchester United have momentum on their side after a thrilling 5-1 victory against Midtjylland in the round of 32, but an injury-ridden squad could hurt the team's chances. Liverpool tiptoed past Augsburg in the round of 32 but are drawn against Man United in the round of 16, which means that one England team will have to end the other's shot at a European title.
That unfortunate round of 16 draw will directly impede England's ability to score UEFA coefficient points in the Europa League, which means that the country's other surviving UEL contender-Tottenham Hotspur-will have to pick up the slack. The Spurs are drawn against Borussia Dortmund for the 16 round-not an impossible match-up, given the strength of Tottenham forwards Harry Kane and Erik Lamela, but not an easy one either.
Help the EPL protect their four Champions League slots, by picking up a shirt or two from Soccer Box today! We have official 2015/16 jerseys in stock for all six clubs currently participating in European competition, from the Manchester United home kit to the Chelsea away shirt.