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5/12/2008 No.53
Kevin Pullein
Fri Dec 5, 2008
Teams who have already qualified for the Champions League knockout stage are liable to ease off in their final group game. Those who do not know whether they will finish first or second ease off less than those who can no longer alter their position. It is worth bearing this in mind next week if you are betting on Champions League Matchday 6. An unusually high total of 13 teams have already qualified for the knockout stage, but only one of them is assured of progress as group winners: Barcelona. Most seasons, only about nine teams have qualified with a fixture to spare.

Winning your group can make an important difference. It means that in the first knockout round you will play opponents who finished runners-up in their group and the second leg of the tie will be at home. You get two advantages, and it seems this is something of which coaches and players are at least partly conscious. Consider these figures from Champions League games played during the last five seasons between teams who had already qualified and those who either had not or could not.

Of the teams who had already qualified but did not know whether they would finish first or second, 56% won their final group game. Previously, these teams had won 63% of their games. In other words, they did less well after qualifying than they had done before.

Of the teams who had already qualified but could no longer alter their position, only 24% won their final group game. Previously, these teams had won 72% of their games. Clearly, these teams wound down dramatically. And who can blame them? There is no point in expending any more effort.

Next week, four already qualified teams will play each other. However, seven already qualified teams whose finishing position is still uncertain will play opponents who have not qualified: Internazionale, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, Villarreal, Juventus and Real Madrid. These teams are likely to perform less strenuously than they usually do, because they have already achieved their overriding objective, but they are unlikely to wind down completely, because there is another worthwhile objective that could still be achieved.

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