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How does the UEFA Champions League work? Competition format explained for 2023/24

How does the UEFA Champions League work? Competition format explained for 2023/24

In 1998, the World Cup-winning captain and manager Franz Beckenbauer warned: “I can see a time, not that far into the future, when all the biggest games will be between clubs, not countries.”

Der Kaiser’s word was hardly solid as oak – a look back at his comments surrounding the Qatar World Cup proves as much – but he did have a point about the battle between club and country. Even after a knockout stage devoid of the drama which has become a staple of recent editions, the Champions League remains the biggest competition in football.

In search of even more revenue and riches, the insatiable powers that be at the top of the continental game are set to revamp the competition’s vaunted format for the 2024/25 campaign.

Here’s how the next iteration of the Champions League will work before it undergoes a dramatic (and potentially detrimental) remodelling.

Qualification for the 2023/24 Champions League begins on 27 June 2023, just 17 days after Manchester City celebrated a narrow 1-0 win over Inter in the final of the 2022/23 competition. The identity of all the teams involved in the group stage – considered the competition proper – will be decided by 30 August 2023.

The champions of all 55 member nations of UEFA – excluding the banned duo of Liechtenstein and Russia – technically have a chance of qualifying for the Champions League group stage and facing reigning champions Manchester City. However, it would take five rounds of qualifying over two months for San Marino’s Tre Penne to make it into the competition proper. But it is possible.

2023/24 Champions League qualifying schedule


Teams involved

Teams that progress

Draw date

First leg date

Second leg date




13 June 2023

27 June 2023

30 June 2023

First qualifying



20 June 2023

11-12 June 2023

18-19 July 2023

Second qualifying



21 June 2023

25-26 July 2023

1-2 August 2023

Third qualifying



24 July 2023

8-9 August 2023

15 August 2023




7 August 2023

22-23 August 2023

29-30 August 2023

Before each round of Champions League qualification – which is made up of preliminary, first qualifying, second qualifying, third qualifying and play-off rounds – a draw will be held to determine which two sides face off. Each team is seeded according to their 2023 UEFA club coefficient. This single number to determine a club’s quality is based on the team’s performance in European competition over the previous five seasons.

The preliminary round is unique in the sense that it is a four-team mini-tournament held in the neutral venue of Iceland’s Kopavogsvollur. Champions of UEFA’s four lowest-ranked nations meet in one-legged semi-finals before the winners battle it out to just make it to the first round of qualifying.

Andorra’s Atletic Club d’Escaldes go up against Buducnost Podgorica, the best of Montenegro, while San Marino’s Tre Penne have drawn the short straw of facing Breidablik – champions of Iceland – in their own country.

The rest of qualifying follows the same pattern of matches across two legs, one held at each club’s home venue. Seeded teams will be drawn against the unseeded sides.

A certain number of clubs enter the qualification process at each round, given a bye in the earlier stages of the gruelling whittling-down process by virtue of their superior coefficient.

The teams that fail to progress at each round of Champions League qualification still have the chance of competing in Europe during the 2023/24 campaign as they drop into various stages of Europa League and Europa Conference League qualifying.

Eventually, the two month process produces six teams that join the Champions League group stages.

The 32 clubs that make it to the Champions League group stages are split into eight groups of four. These mini-leagues are decided by each team’s pot number and their nation; every group has one member from pots one through four but cannot possess two sides from the same country.

Pot one contains the winners of last season’s Champions League (Manchester City) and Europa League (Sevilla) alongside the reigning league champions of England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Portugal – UEFA’s six highest-ranked nations. However, as City are the champions of Europe and England, Eredivisie winners Feyenoord have been bumped up to pot one. The rest of the pots are decided by each club’s all-important UEFA coefficient.

The draw for the Champions League group stage will be held on 31 August 2023

Each team plays six matches against their fellow group members, three at home and as many on the road, with the results tallied in a league table. Teams that finish the group stage level on points are first separated by head-to-head results before overall goal difference comes into play.

The winners and runners-up from each group qualify for the Champions League knockout rounds while the third-placed sides drop into the Europa League.

2023/24 Champions League group stage schedule




19-20 September 2023


3-4 October 2023


24-25 October 2023


7-8 November 2023


28-29 November 2023


12-13 December 2023

This is where the competition really comes alive. After starting the season with 78 teams involved in some stage of the Champions League, only 16 make it into the drama-soaked knockout rounds.

The first round of knockouts, known as the round of 16 in English but more aesthetically referred to as the ‘eighth-final’ on the continent, is seeded. Each group winner is pitted against a runner-up from a different group and a different country. These games are decided via a draw following the conclusion of the group stage.

Round of 16 matches are played across two legs – one at each club’s home venue – with the aggregate score deciding the victor. If the teams are level on aggregate, since the abolition of the away goals rule, second-leg ties will go to extra time and a penalty shootout if necessary.

Quarter-final and semi-final ties follow the same format but are not seeded. The lucky eight sides still left in the competition have their path to the final sketched out by one draw after the round of 16 which completes the bracket for the rest of the competition.

2023/24 Champions League knockout stage schedule


Teams involved

Teams that progress

Draw date

First leg date

Second leg date

Round of 16



18 December 2023

13-14 & 20-21 February 2024

5-6 & 12-13 March 2024




15 March 2024

9-10 April 2024

16-17 April 2024




15 March 2024

30 April – 1 May 2024

7-8 May 2024

The confetti had barely settled on the turf of Turkey’s Ataturk Stadium when Pep Guardiola‘s celebratory moment was spoiled by Khaldoon Al Mubarak. “My chairman,” Manchester City’s Champions League-winning manager breathlessly revealed post-match, “said: ‘Oh, London is next season’s venue of the final. So I don’t tell you my answer to him. It is not proper.”

Manchester City’s directors – if not their manager – may be looking forward to the 2024 showpiece but they will have to be one of the two winners of the semi-finals to qualify for the Champions League final which will be held at London’s Wembley Stadium.

The conclusion of Europe’s premier club competition will take place on Saturday 1 June 2024, with a kick-off time of 20:00 (BST) scheduled.

City are aiming to become the first club since Real Madrid’s three-peat between 2016 and 2018 to retain the Champions League title. Yet, there is an awful long way to go before what has come to be the most important match in the footballing calendar.

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