The Champions League group stage moves into the final two rounds of matches on Tuesday with the results also affecting entries to other international competitions this season and next.
The 2025 FIFA Club World Cup. Next season’s Champions League. This season’s Europa League knockout rounds. They’re are effectively in play right now.
That gives extra incentive even to those teams which have already advanced to the Champions League round of 16 in February — Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, Real Sociedad, Leipzig — to keep pushing for the best possible results. Likewise for the six teams already out of contention: Benfica, Red Star Belgrade, Antwerp, Salzburg, Union Berlin, Young Boys.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The first priority is trying to earn one of the 10 remaining places in the Champions League round-of-16 draw on Dec. 18.
Napoli would advance with a win Wednesday at Madrid, the already qualified Group C leader, though likely must wait for a final game showdown hosting Braga on Dec. 12.
Arsenal will go through with just a draw Wednesday at home to Lens in Group B, and Atletico Madrid can advance with a win at Feyenoord on Tuesday in Group E.
Everything is open in the fascinating Group F where Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and Newcastle can still finish in any position from first to last. On Tuesday, PSG hosts Newcastle and Milan hosts Dortmund.
It’s equally tight between Manchester United, Galatasaray and Copenhagen to finish second behind Group A winner Bayern.
Galatasaray hosting Man United on Wednesday could be the highest-stakes Champions League game of the week, with implications for each club and their respective countries. A loss for either team in Istanbul raises the risk of finishing last in the group which would mean no European football in February.
Third-place finishers in each Champions League group next month continue playing in February. Those eight teams move across to the Europa League knockout playoffs, which also are drawn on Dec. 18.
For English soccer, it is a problem if Man United and Newcastle remain last in their groups and play no European games for the rest of the season.
BONUS CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PLACES
Expanding the Champions League next season in a new 36-team format means four more teams qualifying and two more guaranteed games for each in a single-standings league phase.
Two of the four extra entries will go to the countries whose teams collectively have the best overall record in this season’s European competitions.
When UEFA confirmed this policy last year, England and Spain were predicted to earn those bonus places that would then be given to fifth-place finishers in the Premier League and La Liga. After all, English and Spanish clubs win most European trophies.
Right now, however, Turkey and Belgium are in line for those bonus entries. Clubs from those countries have the best average total of UEFA ranking points this season – 8.75 and 8.40, respectively.
In Turkey that’s because Galatasaray advanced through three qualifying rounds to get into a Champions League group — where it beat Man United at Old Trafford — and Fenerbahce has won nine games since July in the third-tier Europa Conference League.
All three Belgian clubs in the Conference League – Brugge, Gent and Genk – are unbeaten through four rounds, compensating for Antwerp’s struggles in the Champions League.
England and Spain also trail Germany and Italy in the ranking points standings and can ill afford having Man United, Newcastle and Sevilla sit last in Champions League groups.
CLUB WORLD CUP
The relaunched FIFA Club World Cup tournament with 32 teams – 12 from Europe – is played at the end of next season in the United States.
If June 2025 seems a long way off, Champions League results this season are helping to decide which teams advance to what should be a huge brand-building opportunity every four years. FIFA also will pay tens of millions of prize money dollars.
Soccer’s world governing body has not yet confirmed the exact entry path. That could happen at a meeting in Saudi Arabia next month.
Manchester City, Real Madrid and Chelsea are in the Club World Cup as the past three winners of the Champions League. The European champion this season also gets a place.
That leaves eight or nine entries from a yet-to-be-finalized formula that should reward teams for being consistently good in the four Champions League seasons from 2020-24.
FIFA has limited countries to two teams entering with exceptions only for Champions League winners. So Arsenal, Man United or Newcastle must win the final at Wembley Stadium on June 1 to be in the U.S. one year later.
Champions League regulars like Bayern and PSG can be confident they will be at the 2025 Club World Cup. For the rest, each result in this group stage matters more.