English clubs will not be handed a fourth place in Europe despite the addition of a second European club competition from 2025 and an expansion of the Women’s Champions League.
The top three Women’s Super League sides currently qualify for the Women’s Champions League and Uefa says it “cannot leave the rest of Europe behind” the leading domestic leagues.
Under the new structure, the WSL runner-up and third-placed team will drop into the new second-tier competition if they lose in the Champions League qualifying rounds – which Arsenal and Manchester United did this term – but no side finishing below third in the WSL will play in Europe.
England’s top division is ranked fourth in Uefa’s women’s coefficient, behind France, Germany and Spain. At present, the top six-ranked nations each receive three spots in the Women’s Champions League (UWCL), entering at various different rounds. None of the top six-ranked nations will receive any additional qualification spots after 2025, with lower-ranked countries receiving extra spots instead.
Speaking to Telegraph Sport, Nadine Kessler, Uefa’s head of women’s football, said: “Access to the UWCL has to be earned.
“We have a responsibility to drive development across the Continent. Women’s football is still at a stage where, with a little bit of smart investment, and new people coming in, the picture can quickly change.
“Sometimes I feel in women’s football it’s seen as ‘now we just need to do everything we can to get the top, very elitist brands out there, involved and make it big’. No, it needs to be balanced, because many clubs and countries also contributed to where we have got today.”
‘You cannot ride on the history of your men’s team’
In October, after his side were knocked out in UWCL qualifying by Paris St-Germain, Manchester United manager Marc Skinner said it was “crazy” that those two clubs had met at such an early stage. Manchester City head coach Gareth Taylor, whose team were eliminated by Real Madrid in both 2021 and 2022’s qualifying rounds, also said of the existing format: “It’s a shame because you lose teams who should probably be in the group stage.”
But Kessler, mentioning neither of the Manchester clubs directly, said: “As much as I smiled a little bit at some of the recent comments that certain historically big men’s clubs can’t join in, I must say, you should earn your success and you can’t ride on the history of your men’s team.
“Existing big brands, that now have invested [in women’s football] in recent years, and fair enough, if they run women’s football [teams] professionally then they deserve all the credit in the world, but we cannot now just say, ‘OK, I’m focusing on the five top leagues, I’m giving you four or five slots’, despite a domestic league being very small, in comparison to what we know from the men’s game for example, and simply saying, ‘OK, the rest, we’ll leave behind’. I think that’s not the right approach.
“The WSL is a good example as it has only 12 teams. I think three places for a league with 12 teams domestically is not so bad.”
What will the revamped Women’s Champions League look like?
Instead of the existing 16-team group stage, with four groups of four, from 2025 the UWCL will move to an 18-team league phase using the so-called ‘Swiss’ model.
Each club will play six other clubs once – half at home, half away from home – rather than playing three opponents both home and away.
Kessler said: “I appreciate that this is a new format that isn’t really known yet for the men’s, so it’s quite difficult to ‘get it’ at the first instance, but we wanted to create a system where there are more clashes of evenly matched teams earlier on.
“The other exciting factor I think is there are six different opponents [for each team], so every time there’s a new, exciting match. That was the best way for this competition.”
At the end of this 18-team league phase, the top four sides will qualify automatically for the quarter-finals, where they will be seeded and will have home advantage for their quarter-final second leg. Those in fifth to 12th place will play a two-legged play-off for the other four quarter-final spots.
Who will be taking part?
Automatically entering that new 18-team league phase will be the defending UWCL champions, plus the domestic title winners in at least each other the top six-ranked nations, plus the runners-up in the top two countries.
“We have injected quality into the group stages with two more runners-up, and league champions three-to-six directly qualified, that’s also a huge step forward,” Kessler said.
The remaining nine spots will be filled by teams progressing from the revamped qualifying rounds.
How has the UWCL qualification process changed?
The qualifying process will continue to separate domestic champions from the lower-ranked countries from the runners-up and third-placed sides from the higher-ranked nations, as it does currently, with a ‘Champions Path’ and a ‘League Path’. This guarantees that at least four of the nine qualifiers that make it through to the 18-team league phase will be from lower-ranked domestic leagues.
The other five qualifiers will be domestic runners-up and third-placed sides from a higher-ranked league such as the WSL.
The ‘League Path’ has proved notoriously difficult in recent years, and it led to last year’s finalists Wolfsburg and last year’s semi-finalists Arsenal both being eliminated this term, as well as Manchester United.
From 2025, because the domestic runners-up in the two will progress straight to the new 18-team league phase, that should theoretically make the ‘League Path’ slightly easier for a WSL side to navigate. For example, this term, that would have meant Wolfsburg and PSG, the team who knocked out Manchester United, bypassing the qualifying rounds.
Another subtle but significant change is that more higher-ranked nations’ ‘League Path’ teams will enter at the second round of qualifying rather than the first, and this has been specifically done to try to increase the period of rest for some of those players who might typically be involved in the latter stages of a World Cup, Euros or Olympics.
“We talked a lot about player welfare,” Kessler said. “That was also something that was considered throughout. We really tried to listen to feedback. We of course want the players to have rest, it’s fundamental.”
What format will the new second-tier competition use?
The new competition, which does not yet have a name, will use a knockout format, with 44 teams involved overall, being whittled down to a ‘round of 16’ after two initial, two-legged knockout rounds.
Discussing the competition’s format, Kessler said: “We felt like it’s a first step. We wanted to keep it simple. That’s why we went for a simple knockout, and as a starting point, I believe it’s the right call.
“The nice connection to the UWCL is that teams who get knocked out in the earlier rounds get a second chance, feeding into this competition.”
What nights of the week will these matches be played?
In the men’s game, Champions League matches are reserved for Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, with Europa League and Europa Conference League fixtures taking place on Thursday.
Asked if UWCL matches and fixtures for the new second-tier competition would be scheduled for separate nights for broadcast purposes, Kessler explained that had not been decided yet, but said: “There is currently a working group going on, together with the clubs. We expect to go to the market [putting the broadcast rights out to tender] in the first quarter of next year, and then of course we will always try to schedule matches in a way where there’s visibility.”
Uefa’s women’s club tournaments operate on four-year cycles and therefore all of the existing formats will remain in place for next season, the 2024-25 campaign. In 2021, streaming service DAZN secured a four-year deal to 2025 for the worldwide rights to broadcast UWCL matches live.