As mentioned in the article about Promotion and Relegation, we spoke about what happens to teams at the bottom of the Premier League, as well as at the top and bottom of the lower leagues.
This time we are looking at what happens when a team finishes at or near the top of the EPL, as well as the various competitions Football teams compete in each year.
Cups & Continental Competitions
In the EPL, each team plays each other twice; once at home and once on the road. Three points are given for a win, one point is given for a tie, and none are given for a loss.
At the end of this 38 game season, the team with the most total points is crowned champions, with second place being the first to lose. Unlike in North American sports, the best teams play no further games after the regular season, leaving the clubs who stumbled at times in the dust without a chance.
However, that doesn’t mean finishing high in the table is undesirable. The reason is continental competition.
Every year the best and brightest from Europe come together to compete in two different leagues; the Champions League and the Europa League.
Teams in the EPL finishing fourth or higher qualify for the Champions League, which is often considered the most prestigious competition in soccer. Fifth place automatically qualifies for the Europa League, a similar competition for slightly smaller clubs.
UEFA Champions League
So for the CL, the top three teams (based on their standings in the table at the end of the previous year) advance directly to the group stage, beginning in September. However, the fourth-place team’s spot is not guaranteed; they must play a two-legged playoff to make the group stages.
Also, if a team outside the top four won the previous year’s Europa League, they qualify for the Champions League regardless of their league position (so long as they were not relegated).
This qualification takes place at the end of August, a few weeks before the group stage begins. The losing team of this playoff is relegated to the Europa league.
Once the group stages commence, each group is assigned four teams, each representing a different country. The teams then play each other twice, once at home and once away, and just like in the EPL, the clubs with the most points finish the highest.
At the end of this group stage, the top two teams from each group advance to the knockout stage. The lower-finishing teams do not compete in the knockout stages, but depending on their point total, can be assigned to the Europa League.
In fact, 15 losing teams from the Champions League are inserted into the Europa League after their group stage.
The 16 teams who qualify for the knockout rounds are matched up via drawing names from a hat, with a few important rules. One requires that each team play a club originating from a different nation than they are based in (so English clubs cannot play each other, Spanish clubs cannot play each other, etc.).
They may also not play a team from their group, so the winner of Group A cannot play the runner-up of Group A. The Group winners are rewarded for winning by being drawn against runners-up, so the Group A winner can play the Group B runner-up, but not the Group B champion.
So, in this past year’s CL, Arsenal won their group, with PSG finishing second. Leicester City and Bayern Munich both qualified as well.
Arsenal, as Group winners, were not allowed to play PSG in the round of 16, as they had played in the group stage. The Gunners were also not allowed to play Leicester City since both clubs represent the EPL. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich finished runners-up in their group to Atletico Madrid, and Arsenal were assigned the German giants.
The next few rounds are played in the same way; the higher-seeded team plays on the road against the opponents, with the next game played at home. From there the scores from both games are added up, and the team who is on top after game two advances (this is called advancing on aggregate).
There have, of course, been ties in the competition, so the tie-breaker used is away goals.
So, if for example, Milan play Dortmund and in Italy, the score ends Milan 2-1 Dortmund, and in Germany, the score ends Dortmund 1-0 Milan the aggregate score is 2-2. However, since Dortmund scored an away goal, they would advance at the end of leg 2.
Meanwhile, if teams end leg two completely even, extra time is played directly after leg 2, with a penalty shootout if nothing separates the teams at that point.
Each knockout round is played this way until only two teams remain, and the final is one single game played on neutral ground.
UEFA Europa League
Europa League spots are decided by two factors in English football; the League finish and the Cup competitions (we’ll get there).
A team qualifies via the league when they finish in fifth place (like Arsenal did this year). UEFA also grants Europa League football to the two teams that won the two domestic cups (the FA Cup and League Cup).
However, since so many times the winners of these three places are already qualified for the Champions League, teams often qualify without technically satisfying qualification criteria.
For example, this year Arsenal finished fifth and won the FA Cup, both criteria for qualification. The league qualification supersedes the Cup qualification, meaning another team can qualify in their stead.
Normally that would mean that sixth-place Manchester United would take the second place, but this year they qualified for the CL by winning the Europa League. So, seventh place Everton will qualify for the third qualifying round.
Usually, the League Cup winners would also qualify, but since Man U is entering the CL next season, England will already have their maximum number of teams playing in UEFA competitions.
UEFA currently does not allow the English FA more than 7 teams between either competition.
If United had not already qualified, AND had lost the League Cup then Southampton (the runners-up in real life) would take the seventh spot and would play in the Europa League.
One famous example of Europa qualification through the League Cup was when Birmingham City beat Arsenal in the League Cup final. Despite being relegated at the end of that season they still played in Europe since it was not the CL.
There are more teams in the Europa League, so they play an extra knockout round after the group stage. Remember that 15 losing teams from the CL enter this competition at that point.
Aside from that, the knockout rounds are nearly identical to the CL.
In addition to competing in Europe, the big clubs also play against domestic opposition in ‘Cup Competitions’ in the UK. The more prestigious of these two Cups is the Football Association Challenge Cup (FA Cup).
This is the more prominent of the Cups in England and has been contested each year since 1870-71. Every professional team in England and Wales can play, with initial qualifying beginning early in the summer, well before the league season.
Even non-league teams participate (such as Sutton Town and Lincoln City).
Most of the Premier League teams do not play until the knockout rounds, and where they enter the competition is dictated by their last performance in the competition.
For example, Arsenal did not play their first FA Cup game until January this past season, while the likes of non-league Sutton Town began their challenge much earlier on.
There are no groups; teams who advance to the next round are drawn against each other, playing only once unless the first game finishes level. Then a replay is scheduled at the other team’s stadium.
For example, if Arsenal played Everton at Goodison Park and the game finishes 2-2, then they would play again at the Emirates. Extra time and penalties would follow if that game remains tied.
The last two rounds, the semifinals and the final, are played at Wembley Stadium, the official home of the English National Team.
This competition requires the participating members be ‘league’ teams. So, basically, this Cup is contested by the top four tiers of English clubs (see football pyramid article).
The first few rounds, just like in the FA Cup, are played by the weaker teams, with the big-boys not coming into the competition until the third round (usually in September).
Unlike the FA Cup, there are no replays, when the two teams meet, one goes on and one goes home, even if extra time and penalties are required.
The exception is the semifinal, which is played over two legs with both being held at Wembley, and the aggregate scores used to determine a winner.