Champions rarely end up on the route to glory in Europe
Wise words from the Soccer Boffin
England has a perfect record in the Champions League playoffs with seven wins out of seven. The next-best record belongs to Germany, which has seven wins out of eight.
On Tuesday, Liverpool travel from England to Germany for a playoff first leg against Hoffenheim.
Other countries with high-profile domestic competitions generally have good records in the Champions League playoffs. Spanish teams have won six times out of eight, French teams five times out of eight. Italian teams, though, have won only two times out of eight.
The Champions League playoffs are divided into two sections. There are five ties on the champions route, which is for title-winners of weak national leagues, and five ties on the league route, which is for some highly-placed teams who did not win strong national leagues.
They can vary widely in quality. League-route teams tend to be much better than champions-route teams. We can see this if we look at the results of the playoff victors in the Champions League group stage.
The playoffs were introduced in 2009-10. Last season in the group stage Dinamo Zagreb lost six games out of six. They became the seventh out of 40 champions-route teams to lose every game in the group stage.
Overall in the group stage champions-route teams won 15 per cent of their games, drew 21 per cent and lost 64 per cent. On average they conceded almost one-and-a-half goals per game more than they scored.
Their average finishing position in their group was midway between third and fourth. Thirty-six of the 40 finished either third or fourth and did not qualify for the round of 16. That’s 90 per cent.
League-route teams, on the other hand, were close to standard in the group stage. Nine won their group, 11 were runners-up, 14 finished third and six were last. Half finished first or second and qualified for the round of 16, half did not.
League-route teams in the group stage scored almost as many goals as they conceded. Overall they won 36 per cent of their games, drew 24 per cent and lost 40 per cent. If you were looking for a set of teams who were more or less typical in quality of Champions League group-stage participants, you would be hard pressed to find a better set than the league-route playoff winners.
Celtic play on Wednesday in a champions-route playoff first leg at home to Astana of Kazakhstan.
Scottish teams in the champions-route playoffs have won three times out of five. What is interesting about many of the countries that supply teams to the champions-route playoffs is how even their records are. Cypriot and Israeli teams, for example, have won three times out of six, Czech teams two times out of four and Kazakh teams once out of two.
Country records in Champions League playoffs
Note: Only countries with teams in this season’s playoffs are shown
Good news and bad news for Terriers
There is some good news and some bad news for Huddersfield at the start of their first season in the Premier League.
The good news begins with statements that might not sound encouraging.
Huddersfield were promoted through the Sky Bet Championship playoffs. In the regular season they gained 81 points – 13 fewer than top-of-the table Newcastle, 12 fewer than runners-up Brighton and five below the average for Championship promotion-winners (which is 86).
However, there has been only a weak correlation in the past between Championship points and Premier League points.
Championship promotion-winners averaged 39 points in the Premier League. Teams with more than 86 points in the Championship tended to gain more than 39 points in the Premier League, but usually the surplus there was much smaller.
Teams with fewer than 86 points in the Championship tended to gain fewer than 39 points in the Premier League, though usually the shortfall there was much smaller.
The bad news is that there has been a strong correlation between how well promoted teams do in the Premier League and how much they can afford to pay their players, and Huddersfield’s payroll this season is likely to be much smaller than Brighton’s, let alone Newcastle’s.
In the last season for which accounts are available, Huddersfield’s payroll was less than half the size of Brighton’s – and the Seagulls' payroll at the time was not excessive by the standard of Championship promotion-winners.
There was, however, more good news on the pitch on Saturday. Huddersfield won their opening game 3-0 at Crystal Palace.
Smaller pitch perfect for Grayson
"It is not against the rules," said Sunderland manager Simon Grayson. He was questioned after Sunderland’s first match of the season, a televised Sky Bet Championship fixture at home to Derby.
The Stadium of Light pitch was visibly smaller than it had been before. The old border could still be seen outside the new one. The pitch looked about two paces shorter at each end and one pace narrower on both sides.
Grayson said: “I just felt that what we have within the group isn’t suited to a bigger pitch. We haven’t taken it in miles, just a few yards either way. You are entitled to do that.”
Last season Sunderland played in the Premier League, whose regulations say a pitch must be 105m x 68m unless the Premier League give permission for some other dimensions. EFL rules allow more flexibility. They say a pitch must be between 100m and 110m long and between 64m and 75m wide.
The Stadium of Light pitch must now be at or close to the minimum size. But, as Grayson says, the minimum size is allowed.