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Mar 27, 2012

Spain ready to take pole position

Spain will return to the top of UEFA's country ranking for the first time since 2006-07 following a strong performance by La Liga clubs this season and England suffering its worst campaign for seven years.

• UEFA country rankings
• Country coefficient 2011-12
• UEFA club rankings
• Club coefficient 2011-12

Barcelona have also overtaken Manchester United as European football's number one ranked team, with Sir Alex Ferguson's team winning just three matches compared to Barcelona's current total of seven victories, as well as their participation in the latter stages of the Champions League.

There is depressing news for Italy as Serie A continues to slip away from the top table of European football and could drop below Portugal, France and possibly even the Netherlands in forthcoming seasons if its performance does not show a marked improvement.

England actually extended its lead over Spain at the start of the season, largely due to the Spanish top-flight losing an exceptionally strong 2006-07 campaign when it attained a record season coefficient of 19.000.

Added to that, English football was the only league in the whole of Europe to have every single entrant, eight teams, reach the group stages. From Spain, Sevilla failed to make the Europa League while Villarreal went on to lose every single match in the Champions League groups.

There is no additional benefit for winning a competition - so, for instance, Spain received no extra points from Barcelona winning the Champions League nor Portugal for FC Porto's Europa League success.

The coefficient score is designed to give an overall assessment of performance in Europe, rather than give a considerable boost to nations that supply the winners of tournaments; it would give an additional advantage to Europe's bigger leagues, which more often that not produce the champions, especially in the Champions League.

Coefficient points are largely awarded on a simple win, lose or draw basis - two points for a victory and one for a draw (halved for the qualifying rounds). The crucial difference between the two competitions comes via the award of four additional points for reaching the group stage of the Champions League and five for making it to the second round. There is a bonus point, too, for reaching the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals of both competitions.

The total points score for a season is then divided by the number of teams a country has in European competition to arrive at the coefficient. At present, both England and Spain have scored 112 points - but the crucial difference is that England had eight teams in competition to Spain's seven, so the coefficient comes out as 14.00 for England to Spain's 16.00.

The access list for European competition is then calculated by adding together the coefficients over a five-season period, affecting qualification the season after next, and it is on this ranking that Spain is about to eclipse England.

If Chelsea lose both legs of their quarter-final against Benfica, Spain could claim the 20 coefficient points it will need to overtake England before the summer, having five sides still in play. Spain is guaranteed to be ranked as the top league in 2011-12 as the top coefficient score England can attain is 15.50, with Spain already scoring 16.00.

Even if Spain does not overtake England over the remainder of this season, the two nations are set to switch places at the start of next season - unless the five remaining Spanish teams implode in the quarter-finals. The 2007-08 season, when England had three semi-finalists and both finalists in the Champions League though no quarter-finalists in the UEFA Cup, will be wiped from the five-season record, making England's current coefficient score 65.285 to Spain's 65.454 from July.

Much has been made of England's poor performance this season - the coefficient score is likely to be its lowest in seven years unless Chelsea win the Champions League - but there is no immediate danger of losing a Champions League berth. England still has the second-highest coefficient score this season, which if repeated over a five-season spell would still comfortably secure four Champions League places. England would need to get worse, but more importantly another league would have to get consistently stronger.

Despite having two Champions League winners in the current five-year coefficient - Milan in 2006-07 and Inter in 2009-10 - Italy's poor performance - particularly in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, where it has not had a finalist since Parma beat Marseille in the 1999 final - has cost it a Champions League berth for 2012-13. To underline just how far Italy has fallen in Europe's secondary competition, it provided at least one of the finalists in ten out of 11 seasons from Napoli's win in 1989 up to Parma's success.

Italy's coefficient is its worst since 2007-08 and it is almost certain to stay that way unless Milan get past Barcelona. There is no chance whatsoever of reclaiming a fourth Champions League place for 2013-14 back from Germany. In 2006-07, Italy was ranked second and led Germany in fifth by 18.367 points. Such has been the reversal in fortunes that Germany is now third, 13.681 points ahead of Italy in fourth.

Italy is in serious danger of dropping further behind rather than clawing back third position. At the start of next season the co-efficient scores will roughly be Germany on 60.019, Italy 49.558, France 47.250 and Portugal 46.418. Portugal still have two teams in Europe this season to Italy's one, and with Italy losing a further 4.59 coefficient points on Portugal at the start of 2013-14, Italy will need a strong European performance next season to avoid falling to fifth.

One small consolation for Italy is that a drop to seventh place in the ranking, costing another Champions League place, seems unlikely due to the Netherlands and Ukraine being more than nine points behind. That said, the Netherlands has enjoyed its best-ever European season with a score of 13.200, with last season's score of 11.166 being its best since 2004-05. Dutch football is fast catching up with Italy in Europe.

If Italy's performance does not improve over the next three seasons, its ranking drops to sixth at the start of 2014-15 with both France and Russia close behind and Netherlands up to fifth. Much is hypothetical about those positions, with three seasons to be played before then, though with Inter Milan almost certain to miss out on Europe next season, Italy will be without one of its traditional powerhouses. There is much concern in Italian football about how far it has fallen and the future.

With Italy continuing to underperform, Portugal would appear to be the only immediate threat to England's position in the top three, though it is very doubtful there is the depth in Portuguese football to produce the consistency over a five-year period that would be required.

There will be no major change for European access in 2013-14 compared to next season, though Switzerland will reclaim a second Champions League place from Scotland and Austria move up to two berths at the cost of Romania. Cyprus could still overtake Austria for a second UCL spot but Apoel Nicosia would have to eliminate Real Madrid in this season's quarter-finals.

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