Champions League vs Europa League – Everything you need to know

UEFA’s two biggest competitions, Champions League and Europa League are annual continental tournaments involving top European clubs. Decades after the dissolution of the Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA added the Conference League to its calendar starting from the 2021-22 season.

But those two will continue to have prestigious pedigrees, unlike the newly-formed competition. We’ll delve deep to find out the differences between Champions League and Europa League.

History of the European Cup and Europa League

As expected, Champions League was conceived ahead of Europa League by UEFA. And, both competitions played for multiple years before the name changes.

Since the 1890s, there were organized tournaments like Challenge Cup, Coupe Van der Straeten Ponthoz, Mitropa Cup and Coupe des Nations in the continent before South America’s equivalent inspired UEFA to come up with the European Champions Clubs’ Cup in 1955.

L’Equipe, a French-based magazine, had the honour of selecting the participating teams for the inaugural season. 16 football associations were represented as they mostly sent reigning champions, with fewer exceptions. Chelsea withdrew from the event in the eleventh hour after pressure from the English Football League, who initially saw it as a distraction to domestic football.

In a final played at Parc des Princes, Real Madrid lifted the trophy with a 4-3 win against Stade Reims. The Spanish giants also went on to win the next four tournaments as their five-peat triumph is yet to be repeated in the competition’s history.

Alongside the European Champions Clubs’ Cup, there was also the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup played from 1955 to 1971. But this one wasn’t governed and organized by UEFA. Since it was a competition by a Fairs Cup committee and the replacement had different formats and regulations, it’s considered a separate entity, although it was a precursor for the UEFA Cup.  

There was an all-English final in the first UEFA Cup final at the end of the 1971-72 season. For all its current moniker as a trophy-less club, Tottenham Hotspur became the first champion beating Wolverhampton Wanderers in a two-legged final. 

In 1992, UEFA rebranded the European Cup to the now-popular Champions League. The same was done for the Europa League from the 2009-10 season. 

Champions League vs Europa League – Competition Format

The current format of Champions League’s round-robin group stage with 32 teams started from the 2009-10 season. The number of representatives by member associations is decided based on the UEFA coefficients.

A club is expected to meet the sporting criteria to participate in the Champions League as well as the infrastructure requirements of a UEFA-standard stadium and financial budget. 

Starting from the 2015-16 season, the winners of the previous season’s Europa League qualify for the Champions League directly.

After six rounds of games, the top two from the eight groups qualify for the knockout stages. Third-placed teams will be transferred to Europa League. Those who finished top of their groups get to play the return leg at home in the round of 16.

Teams from the same association could only seeded together from the quarter-finals onwards as the random draws decide the ties. 

There was an exception to the knockout stage proper in the 2019-20 season. Due to COVID-19, Champions League was suspended for five months. To compensate for the calendar mismatch, UEFA decided to complete the 2019-20 season with a single knockout format at a neutral venue – Lisbon, Portugal for Champions League and in four German cities for Europa League.

From next season, Champions League will have a new format of 36 teams in the group stage. The number of games will increase from the current format as all teams are measured in one group and play four home and away games based on the seeding.

Apart from the eight teams who collected the most points, the rest will enter a playoff round to qualify for the round of 16.

Europa League Format

The new format of the Swiss-system will also affect the Europa League starting from the 2024-25 season. Similarly to the Champions League, 36 teams will compete in the group stage. Cup winners and those who finished behind Champions League places would represent their respective associations in UEFA’s second-rated tournament.

A picture of the old UEFA Cup trophy taken inside the FC Porto Museum.

Qualification Process for the Champions league and Europa league

From the 2024-25 season, the first five associations in the UEFA coefficient will have four representatives in the Champions League. The fourth-placed team from the fifth-rated league will enter the qualification phase.

England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France are the first five names that will have four participants for the next season.

In Europa League, the first 12 associations in the UEFA coefficient would have two teams. One of them would be cup winners, while the next spot goes for a team that finished behind Champions League places.

In total, 55 European football associations would take part, but Russia is currently suspended from both UEFA and FIFA competitions. Since Liechtenstein doesn’t have a league with their clubs competing in Switzerland, their association only has a place in the Europa League, via the Liechtenstein Football Cup.

Champions League’s qualification phase consists of four rounds. The teams would compete in two groups named the Champions Path and League Path. From 43 champions of their respective associations, five of them made it into the group stage. Similarly, two teams from 11 will join them in the competition from the League path section.

The Europa League qualification rounds also have four stages. It starts with the 18 domestic cup winners from the associations ranked from 16 to 34, excluding Russia. More teams enter the scene in the next rounds, including an entry for 11 teams downgraded from Champions League qualifiers.

The quota for the association members would be skewed a bit based on the identity of teams automatically qualified as the previous season’s winner. Just like Europa League champions have a ticket for the Champions League group stage, Europa Conference League winners qualify for the Europa League.

Here are the allocated spaces for the 2024-25 season:

Route to Champions League

AssociationTeams per association
England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France (1-5 associations)4
Netherlands (6th association)3
Portugal, Belgium, Scotland, Austria, Serbia, Turkey, Switzerland, Ukraine and Czech Republic (7-15 associations)2
All the rest (except Russia and Liechtenstein)1
Additional spot for top two associations with 2023-24 coefficient2
2023-24 Europa League winner1

 

Direct route to Champions League group stage

 

AssociationTeams
10 champions from UEFA associations 1-10 from coefficient10
6 runners-up from associations 1-66
5 third-placed teams from associations 1-55
4 fourth-placed teams from associations 1-44
Top two associations with the 2023-24 coefficient2
Champions League title holders1
Europa League title holders1

 

Route to Europa League

 

AssociationTeams per association
Cup winners and next placed team in the league from 1-15 associations2
Cup winners from 18-34 associations (except Russia)1
2023-24 Europa Conference League winner1

 

Direct route to Europa League group stage

 

AssociationTeams
Cup winners from associations 1-77
Fifth-placed teams from associations 1-55
Europa Conference League title holders1

 

Timing – when are the Champions League and Europa league games played?

Tuesdays and Wednesdays used to be the dates for Champions League fixtures. But there would be some Thursday games slotted for Europe’s premier competition starting from next season.

Champions League final games will continue to be played on Saturdays in May. Europa League season concludes on Wednesday with the final played days before the Champions League counterpart.

Unless there are scheduling conflicts, the group stage and other knockout stage games of Europa League are played on Thursday nights alongside Europa Conference League.

Sponsorship

Based on the agreement signed when the Champions League brand was introduced in 1992, a maximum of eight companies are allowed to sponsor the competition for maximum exposure.

With the help of the current technology, UEFA use augmented reality in addition to the advertising hoardings on matchdays. 

Champions League vs Europa League Prize money

The differences between the competitions are visible in the prize gaps. Here are the numbers from the 2022-23 season. (Source: The Sporting News)

StageChampions League prize moneyEuropa League prize money
Group-stage€15.64m€3.98m
Group-stage win€2.8m€550k
Group-stage draw€930k€180k
Playoff Round€430k
Round of 16€9.6m€1.05m
Quarter-finals€10.6m€1.57m
Semi-finals€12.5m€2.4m
Runners-up€15.5m€4m
Winner€20m€7.5m

 

Champions League Trophy compared with the Europa League Trophy

The Champions League trophy is the same since 1967. Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Liverpool were awarded the official trophy permanently for either winning three years in a row or five times overall.

But, since 2008, UEFA removed this rule as the latest official trophy will stay at their premises. The trophy was designed from silver in Bern, Switzerland. It is 74 cm (29 inches) tall and it weighs 11kg (24 lb).

After the new regulations, the Europa League trophy will also be maintained by UEFA at all times. Only Sevilla has the honor of a multiple-winner badge as they tick both boxes of three consecutive wins and five championships.

Silvio Gazzaniga, who also designed the World Cup trophy, crafted the prize in 1972. It is 67 centimeters (26 inches) and it weighs 15 kg (33 lb). 

Number of games

There will be a noticeable increase in the number of games in both competitions starting next season. With the newly-proposed Super League threatening UEFA’s power, they set out a new proposal that will result in more revenue for European giants with the help of more games.

But the move was also severely criticized by many as it didn’t consider the already tight schedule of professional football. In fact, with the Club World Cup also increasing the number of participants, players at bigger clubs will have to deal with more of the fatigue and strain of a congested season. 

Teams outside the top 25 European coefficients will have to go unscathed in eight games during the qualification process to make it into the group stage. To be a champion, a team is required to play from 15 to 17 games from the group stage to the grand final. This number used to stand at 13 before this new format.

The same applies to Europa League teams. 

UEFA Super Cup

It’s vital to look at the records of the Super Cup to evaluate the champions of the two competitions. Since the discontinuation of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, the UEFA Super Cup has been played between the winners of the Champions League and Europa League.

The recent naming and rebranding was realized in 2009. Barcelona, AC Milan and Real Madrid are joint-record winners with five trophies each.

The current holders are Manchester City, who beat Europa League specialists Sevilla on penalties. From the last 11 editions, Atletico Madrid is the only team to lift the Super Cup as the Europa League winner with their extra-time victory against city rivals Real Madrid in 2018.

Records – which team has won the most?

Spanish teams are the most successful sides in European football. Real Madrid held the record for most Champions League titles, while Sevilla are the team to beat in the Europa League.

Here are some team and individual records of the two competitions.

RecordChampions LeagueEuropa League
Most titlesReal Madrid (14)Sevilla (7)
Finals lostJuventus (7)Benfica and Marseille (3)
Most titles (nation)Spain (19)Spain (14)
Finals lost (nation)Italy (17)England, Italy and Germany (8)
Most seasonsReal Madrid (54)Sporting CP (36)
Participants (nation)Germany (15)Germany and England (18) [Europa League era]
Number of clubs reaching final (nation)England (6)Spain, England and Germany (5)
Most games (player)Cristiano Ronaldo (183)Giuseppe Bergomi (96)
Most goals (player)Cristiano Ronaldo (140)Henrik Larsson (40)
Most titles (player)Paul Gento (6)Jose Antonio Reyes (5)
Most clean sheet (goalkeeper)Iker Casillas (57)Walter Zenga and Frank Rost (35)
Most games (manager)Sir Alex Ferguson (202)Unai Emery (102)
Most titles (manager)Carlo Ancelotti (4)Unai Emery (4)
Most appearances (referee)Felix Brych (69)Aleksandar Stavrev and Aleksey Kulbakov (35)

 

Clubs who have won both the Champions League and Europa League

Real Madrid (14 Champions League and 2 Europa League)

Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid won the most combined titles in the continental front. Their record 14 Champions League title played a big part in this stat.

Real Madrid won each of the first five European Cups. After their sixth in 1966, they even failed to reach the final for fifteen years. And they had to wait until 1998 for their next trophy. The Galactico era added two more trophies to their cabinet in the early 2000s, but their tenth (La Decima) didn’t come with ease.

Los Blancos ended the wait in 2014 with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm. In the Champions League era, they became the only club to defend the title as they went three years in a row from 2016-2018. In his second and current spell, the Italian coach repeated his feat once again as his team beat Liverpool in the 2022 final at Stade de France.

Real Madrid’s two Europa League titles came in successive years back when the tournament went by the name of UEFA Cup. They beat the Hungary side Videoton in the two-legged final in the 1984-85 final. 

With English teams banned in the aftermath of the Heysel Stadium Disaster, Real Madrid defended their title in 1986. Just like the previous season, they beat Inter in the semi-final. A 5-3 aggregate win against Koln saw Luis Molowny’s side retain the title.

Real Madrid only played nine UEFA Cup (Europa League) seasons, with the last being in the 1994-95 season.

Liverpool (6 Champions League and 3 Europa League)

In contrast, Liverpool first won the second-fiddle tournament before showing their worth in the premium competition. In the 1971-72 UEFA Cup final, Bill Shankly’s side held on to win Bundesliga outfit Borussia Monchengladbach with an aggregate score of 3-2.

The 1970s were the best years for those finalists as Liverpool added three more continental silverware in the next five years. First, Kevin Keegan’s match-winning penalty against Club Brugge helped them to their second UEFA Cup in 1976.

There was a familiar sight for Liverpool in the next season’s European Cup final. Bob Paisley’s men saw off Gladbach once again as they won European clubs’ biggest prize for the first time. The Reds repeated the feat in the 1978 final by beating another familiar foe from this decade, Club Brugge.

Paisley was still at the club for their third European Cup success in 1981. This one was a big upset as they narrowly beat European kings Real Madrid in the Parc des Princes’ final.

Liverpool were also the slight underdogs when they lifted the coveted prize in 1984 as they beat AS Roma, who played the final at home. Zimbabwean goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s famous movement in the penalty shootout was the decisive factor.

The score rather resembles a penalty shootout result when Liverpool next won a continental trophy – the 2000-01 UEFA Cup. The 5-4 victory against La Liga’s surprising side Deportivo Alaves achieved with the golden goal rule in extra-time.

Four years later, an even bigger storyline. Steven Gerrard inspired them to overturn a three-goal half-time deficit against a star-studded AC Milan side in a memorable Istanbul final.

After a long wait, Jurgen Klopp brought back the prestigious trophy to Liverpool with a 2-0 success over fellow Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur in 2019.

Bayern Munich (6 Champions League and 1 Europa League)

The German record champions first prevailed in Europe with a Cup Winners’ Cup triumph in the 1966-67 season. It was only their second season in the Bundesliga with the domestic and European cup double paving the way for their dominant years.

In the early 1970s, Bayern Munich won three successive European Cups with Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller the backbones of the side. In what showed their true spirit, Bayern won each final with the finest of margins against less-fancied opponents Atletico Madrid, Leeds United and Saint-Etienne.

Once their dominance was put to a halt, Bayern went trophyless in Europe for two decades, only reaching two European Cup finals in the process. In 1996, with Beckenbauer now as a coach, Bayern beat Bordeaux in a two-legged UEFA Cup final. Otto Rehhagel was at the helm before Bayern’s league form saw him relieved ahead of the biggest games of the season.

The Bavarians never took part in that competition since the Europa League rebrand. Back in the Champions League, they knew how to react to disappointments. Two years after dramatically losing to Manchester United, Bayern Munich won the Champions League on penalty shootouts against Valencia in 2001.

And, the season after the painful 2012 home defeat to Didier Drogba-inspired Chelsea, they prevailed in the all-German final staged at Wembley Stadium. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben combined late to score the winning goal against Borussia Dortmund.

They won their sixth Champions League in 2020 when the competition had to take a different format due to the extended break caused by COVID-19. They beat PSG, coached by Bayern’s current coach Thomas Tuchel, in the only closed-door Champions League final.

Juventus (2 European Cup and 3 UEFA Cup)

Italy’s second-most successful club in Europe, Juventus held the record for Champions League final defeat with seven. But we’ll only focus on their triumphs here. And it all happened in the 20th century.

Michel Platini’s penalty against Liverpool won their first European Cup trophy in the 1984-85 season. A penalty shootout win at the expense of Ajax repeated the success in 1996.

As for the UEFA Cup, two of their three titles came in the first half of the 1990s. They have also won the now-defunct competitions, Cup Winners’ Cup and Intertoto Cup.

Ajax (4 Champions League and 1 UEFA Cup)

The historic Dutch club won an impressive 7 out of 11 European finals. At the start of the 1990s, there were three successive European Cups with Rinus Michel at the managerial front and Johan Cruyff leading the cause on the pitch.

In 1995, Louis van Gaal achieved one of the most incredible Champions League success stories with a youthful Ajax side as 18-year-old Justin Kluivert scored the winner against their prestigious opponent AC Milan in the final. 

Ajax’s solitary UEFA Cup (Europa League) triumph also involved a Serie A outfit. They beat Torino in the 1992 final off of the away goals rule.

Inter Milan (3 Champions League and 3 UEFA Cup)

Inter Milan is another club that won both competitions multiple times. Two of their three Champions League trophies were stories from the 1960s. Jose Mourinho brought European jubilation to the blue and black side of Milan with a treble in 2009-10.

Their three UEFA Cup triumphs were all won in the 1990s.

Chelsea (2 Champions League and 2 Europa League)

Although they had two Cup Winners’ Cup trophies to their names, it was Roman Abrahmovic’s acquisition that changed the story of Chelsea in Europe. And, of course, in the Premier League.

However, they weren’t fancied both times they won the Champions League. In 2012, they beat Bayern in Munich with the interim coach Roberto Di Matteo. And, in 2021, Thomas Tuchel upset Pep Guardiola’s Premier League conquerors Manchester City in Porto.

Chelsea won Europe’s second-fiddled competition twice since its rebranding to the Europa League.

Manchester United (3 Champions League and 1 Europa League)

Mourinho is the reason Manchester United made it here as he won the Europa League with them in 2017. Before that, the Red Devils won the biggest prize three times, including twice with Sir Alex Ferguson in the Champions League era.

Porto (2 Champions League and 2 Europa League)

One of the only six coaches to win both the Champions League and Europa League, the Special One managed to complete the double with Porto. The club’s latest triumph was won by Andre Villas-Boas, who was nicknamed the new Mourinho when his managerial career started.

Feyenoord (1 European Cup, 2 UEFA Cup)

PSV (1 European Cup, 1 UEFA Cup)

Summary

As we have seen in all categories, the Champions League is the Crème de la Crème. It’s the biggest club competition in Europe. The pedigree, level of teams, star names, prize money and attraction stand out from the rest.

Meanwhile, Europa League has its own flavor. There is more chance of fresh encounters as it’s a more open tournament for underdogs and the small football federations.