EXPLAINER: Real Madrid’s best path to the UEFA Women’s Champions League group stage

Last season, Real Madrid Femenino played their first ever Champions League minutes after a second-place finish in domestic competition, pitting them against Manchester City in a two-legged tie in order to progress to the group stage.

Although Las Blancas have made it to Europe once again, their path will be harder this time, as they finished third in Primera Iberdrola in 2021/22.

Let’s explain the qualification process and go over what Madrid needs to do to get the group stage again (and how they can make it easier on themselves).

It’s All About the UEFA Coefficients

UEFA coefficients are used to determine the number of participating teams from each country (officially referred to as “associations”).

Here are the rankings, which are decided based on the 2021 coefficients (yes, not 2022), taking into account performance in European competitions from 2016/17 to 2020/21:

  • Associations 1–6 each have three teams that qualify.
  • Associations 7–16 each have two teams that qualify.
  • If they entered, all other associations (except Russia) each have one team that qualifies.
  • The winners of the 2021/22 Champions League automatically qualify for the group stage and are given an additional entry if they did not qualify for the 2022/23 edition via their domestic league.
  • The four winners of the top four leagues automatically qualify for the group stage.

The Champions Path & League Path

The vast majority that don’t make the group stage need to go through the qualification rounds, which are split into two distinct paths: the Champions Path and the League Path. At a broad level, the concept is as simple as it sounds — those who won their respective leagues are classified under the Champions Path, and those who didn’t win their respective leagues are classified under the League Path.

Wikipedia

Within both these paths, teams are further divided up and placed into Round 1 or Round 2 based on that all-important association coefficient. The above chart should break it down for you. Note: those who play in Round 1 need to also contest Round 2, so getting into the latter from the beginning is a huge advantage.

Here’s where we get to Real Madrid’s situation: having finished third in Primera Iberdrola and being from the fourth-placed association in 2021, Las Blancas have been selected for Round 1 of the League Path, which begins on August 18th.

The sixteen teams in this section were split into four groups, with Madrid getting drawn into Group 4.

To progress past Round 1, Madrid would need to win their first game vs. Sturm Graz in the “semi-final” and beat either Manchester City or Tomiris-Turan in the “final” (there are no second legs in this portion).

If Madrid lose their first match, they would still have to play a “third-place” game, even though they would have been knocked out.

However, we’re going to stay positive and assume that the All Whites go through. What happens then?

Round 2: Real Madrid’s Smoothest Road to the Group Stage

In that case, Madrid would be one of four sides that has progressed to Round 2 of the League Path, setting them up to face an opponent in a two-legged tie.

There are six teams that have automatically qualified for this round (the numbers in brackets are the individual club coefficients — NOT the same thing as the association coefficients — which refer to the cumulative total of the club’s coefficients from the previous five seasons + 20% of its association’s five-season coefficient):

  1. Paris Saint-Germain (85,666)
  2. Bayern Munich (84,133)
  3. Arsenal (39,200)
  4. AC Sparta Praha (34,766)
  5. BK Häcken (20,833)
  6. Real Sociedad (13,233)

The matchups are decided by dividing the teams into two pots of five before drawing the pots against each other. Four of the six that automatically qualified get the privilege of being in Pot 1 thanks to their coefficients, while the lowest-ranked two are placed in Pot 2. The fifth slot in Pot 1 will be allotted to one of the four from Round 1, thus, pushing the other three into Pot 2 (thereby making it an even 5:5 split between both pots).

If Madrid make it to Pot 1, they would avoid a match against the likes of PSG, Bayern, or Arsenal, but there are three other teams who could potentially qualify for Pot 1 ahead of Real based on the club coefficient:

  1. Manchester City (63,200)
  2. Glasgow City FC (33,400)
  3. Fortuna Hjørring (28,550)
  4. Real Madrid (26,233)

So, if Real Madrid are to get into Pot 1 (and assuming they’ve made it through instead of Manchester City), they need both Glasgow City and Fortuna to be eliminated in Round 1. If that doesn’t happen and either of those two are champions of their group, then Madrid’s potential R2 opponents would be one of Bayern, PSG, Arsenal, Sparta Praha, or Glasgow/Fortuna.

At the moment, the known rivals for those in Pot 1 are Real Sociedad (who Madrid cannot feature against, since both are from the same country) and Häcken. The others could be some three-team combination of Paris FC, Servette, AS Roma, FC Minsk, FC Slovácko, Breiðablik, Rosenborg, Ajax, Kristianstads DFF, or Eintracht Frankfurt (limiting the options to only those Madrid could face), keeping in mind that only one side can make it out of each group (ie Slovácko and Rosenborg can’t both be in Pot 2).

Getting into this scenario will be tough, since it’s not all about Las Blancas controlling their own destiny. But the possibility is tantalizing, as a tie against opposition like Servette, Breiðablik, or Roma would see Real pegged as the favorites, as opposed to the terrifying prospect of playing Bayern, PSG, or Arsenal.

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