The league of champions

 

The Union of European Football Associations Champions League — known as the Champions League — is the most watched annual sporting event worldwide. If you aren’t one of the estimated 145 million viewers watching the final, you’re missing out on some of the most prestigious and lively competition in European football.

Before massive changes occurred in 1992, membership into the tournament was granted only to the champion club of each country and was a straight knockout-style competition.

In the current format, there are multiple ways for a team to be granted membership into the league tournament — as league champions, by finishing within the top four in the national championship, as the defending cup holder, or as the winners of the previous qualifying rounds.

The qualifying rounds begin in July and consist of three knockout rounds and a play-off round. The ten teams that survive the qualifying rounds join 22 teams in the start of the competition.

The ball starts rolling with a group stage round-robin of 32 teams. They are divided into eight seeded groups of four teams. At this stage, teams from the same country are not seeded into groups together. In traditional round-robin style, each team meets their match both away and at home. The top two teams from each seeded group then gain entry into the next round of play.

Round two of the tournament occurs between February and March, involving 16 teams – either winners or runner-ups from the group stage. In the 2011/12 season of the Champions League, the noteworthy fixtures are the Anglo-Italian match-ups. These games have caused a stir and intrigue in the tournament. The two English teams left in contention are Chelsea and Arsenal.

Chelsea has seen mighty success in the Champions League, but has been slipping in their show of talent in regular season fixtures. Napoli, a tenacious and precise team, will prove a tough test when Chelsea meets Napoli in Italy on Feb. 21 at 2:45 p.m.

Arsenal was handed a similarly tough draw with AC Milan and AC Milan wishes to exact revenge. In the 2007/08 season of the Champions League, Arsenal eliminated AC Milan from further play. This round of play will also go first to Italy, occurring on Feb. 15 at 2:45 p.m.

After the second round occurs, the final stage ensues from March to May. The final stage involves the eight winners from the second round of play. From the quarterfinals on, draws are entirely random and, therefore, teams may draw other teams from their own country. This stage consists of quarterfinals, semi-finals and the much-anticipated final, typically held in the last two weeks of May.

The current champion of the cup is Barcelona. Barcelona is still in the running for the 2011/12 title as of round two and will be playing German team Bayer Leverkusen on Feb. 12 at 2:45 p.m. Real Madrid, the most successful club with nine titles to their name, is also in play and will be facing CSKA Moscow on Feb. 21 at 12 p.m.