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Why Premier League clubs need West Ham to progress in Europe

Why Premier League clubs need West Ham to progress in Europe

Manchester City players celebrate as then captain Ilkay Gundogan lifts the Champions League trophy
Manchester City are the holders of the Champions League

West Ham will be looking to reach a third successive European quarter-final when they entertain German side Freiburg in the Europa League last 16 on Thursday.

David Moyes’ side are a goal down from the first leg as they bid for more European glory, having won the Conference League last season and reached the Europa League semi-finals in the campaign before.

But it is not just West Ham’s season that hinges on the outcome.

Domestic rivals Tottenham and Aston Villa will be paying close attention, as will Brighton, Wolves, Newcastle and Chelsea.

This is because the result could turn out to be crucial in deciding which country gets one of Uefa’s coveted new European performance spots and an extra place in Europe.

How is the Champions League format changing?

Since 2003-04, the group phase has involved eight groups, each containing four clubs, with each team playing the other three home and away and the top two advancing to the knockout phase.

Next year, there will be 36 clubs competing in what is known as a ‘Swiss’ format, with teams playing eight matches against eight different opponents, with four home games and four away.

The top eight clubs will progress straight into the last 16, with those from ninth to 24th meeting in two-leg play-offs and the winners advancing.

How are the extra places decided?

The Champions League has four new places to fill because of its expansion.

Two extra places will go to the best-performing leagues in Europe this season. Realistically, the additional places will go to two nations out of Germany, Italy, Spain and England.

This means the team who finish fifth in the Premier League this season could automatically qualify for the Champions League.

Uefa’s association coefficient rankings – based on the results of all European clubs in Uefa competitions – decide which two leagues will benefit from the additional places.

Every win by a club from a nation is worth two points and a draw is worth one point.

Bonus points are then accrued by progressing through various stages of each competition, with it weighted in favour of teams performing well in the Champions League, then the Europa League and then the Europa Conference League.

All points earned by clubs from each country are added up before being divided by the number of teams from that nation in Europe – eight in the Premier League’s case.

Additionally, one place will go to the third-placed team in the domestic league ranked fifth in the Uefa coefficient – currently France.

The last of the extra spots will go to the qualifying path for champions. Four teams used to come through this route into the group phase, but from next season it will be five. The place cannot go to a team from the top 10 leagues as their champions do not go through qualifying.

How the rankings stand at the moment?

At the start of this week’s round of European fixtures, Italy and Germany occupied the top two slots, with England in third.

England are in a slightly worse position now than on Monday despite Arsenal’s win over Porto in the Champions League. That is because Borussia Dortmund also won against PSV, and Germany’s points are divided by seven to England’s eight.

Mikel Arteta’s team collected three performance points, two for the win and one for going through. This is then divided by eight – the number of English teams who competed in Europe this season – and is added to the total.

And this brings us back to West Ham v Freiburg.

Given Italy’s strong position – and the fact four of their teams go into respective last-16 ties in the Europa League and Europa Conference League in very strong positions – the prospect of Serie A not getting a European performance slot is slim.

However, between England and Germany it is tighter, not least because three out of seven Bundesliga sides have already been eliminated and therefore can not accrue any more points.

It would take a huge swing for Brighton, who are 4-0 behind against Roma, to change this situation.

But with Arsenal and Manchester City already into the Champions League quarter-finals, Liverpool virtually there in the Europa League and Aston Villa favoured to advance in the Europa Conference League, England should have at least four teams through. Germany are likely to have at least three.

If West Ham were to eliminate Freiburg, then like Arsenal they would secure three points. Depending on how it happened, if Freiburg went through then the German side would receive somewhere from one to three additional points, having already collected two points for winning the first leg.

In coefficient terms, that is a swing of nearly a point. The gap at the start of this week was 0.875. The outcome will not be definitive, but whoever wins puts their country into a very strong position.

What would an extra Champions League spot mean for the rest of the Premier League?

The impact of a European performance spot would ripple down the Premier League.

Firstly, the spot would go to the team finishing fifth in the table, below clubs who had already qualified for the Champions League. If the table stayed as it is, that would be Tottenham.

But it also opens up other European spots. So the two Europa League places would go to the FA Cup winners – if they had not qualified for the Champions League – and the sixth-placed Premier League team (or the sixth and seventh Premier League teams, if the FA Cup winners have reached the Champions League).

On that same FA Cup-contingent basis, the Europa Conference League qualifiers would be the seventh/eighth-placed Premier League team. If West Ham or Brighton won the Europa League, they would go into the Champions League, so the qualification would move even further down the table.

The same is also true of Aston Villa, who would go into the Europa League if they won the Europa Conference League – although their place would not be re-allocated if they had already qualified for the Europa League through their league position.

It is possible – though highly unlikely – England could have 11 teams in European competition next season. They would be the usual seven spots, plus an extra Champions League place and the winners of all three European competitions (if they finished outside a European position).

But just by taking a European performance spot, the battle for fifth – and eighth – would have renewed meaning.

West Ham v Freiburg really is a very big game.

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