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By ESPN Staff

Tougher UCL route for fourth-placed teams

BRUSSELS, Nov 26 (Reuters) - The fourth-placed teams in England, Spain and Italy will face a tougher route into the lucrative group stage of the Champions League as part of a reform of the competition to be approved by UEFA on Friday.

Under the proposals, third-placed teams in Europe's three top leagues - which previously entered in the final qualifying round - will now get automatic entry into the money-spinning group stage, a senior UEFA official said on Monday.

But in return the fourth-placed sides, which until now were also given qualifying berths and seeded against clubs from lesser nations, will be pitted against each other along with five clubs of a similar size in a separate qualifying phase.

'The clubs will come from the eight leagues ranked highest according to our (coefficient) rankings and will play for four group phase places,' the official said.

Based on current UEFA rankings, France, Germany, Portugal, Romania and Netherlands make up the top eight countries along with England, Spain and Italy.

'The lesser-known and medium-sized clubs will fight it out in a separate phase based on the traditional three qualifying rounds with six group spots on offer for them,' the official added.

If the new format had been in place for this season's competition, instead of beating Sweden's Elfsborg 5-1, Spain's Valencia would likely have faced a much-tougher challenge from the likes of England's Liverpool or Italy's Lazio.

It is the latest twist in negotiations between UEFA, the clubs, leagues and players over how the multi-million euro competition should be reformed.

UEFA's executive committee will ratify one of three proposals to be tabled by UEFA president Michel Platini on Friday which will map out the format of the competition from 2009.

As reported by Reuters in October, the UEFA official confirmed that each of the three plans included shelving Platini's idea to grant Champions League places to the domestic cup winners for at least two to three years.

But in return for appeasing the wishes of the top leagues and clubs, which claimed the cup winners move would devalue their domestic leagues, Platini will achieve his ultimate goal of having at least six extra champions in the competition and more clubs from smaller nations.

'It's all part and parcel of negotiating and remember the cup winners idea is only shelved for a few years and not scrapped,' the UEFA official said.

'But Platini is very pleased and the talks in general were a positive sign of the trust which has grown between all sides since he became president in January.'

Platini successfully campaigned for the UEFA presidency with a pledge to open up the Champions League to clubs from less powerful footballing nations.