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Wednesday, November 3, 1999 Published at 22:48 GMT

Champions League: How it works

This year's Champions League is a far cry from the straight knock-out European Cup which began in the 1950s - a format which lasted until the start of this decade.

Ever since the 1990s began there has been pressure to increase the size of the world's most prestigious club competition.

By the time the winning captain lifts the famous trophy next May his club will have played at least 17 matches in this competition alone.

It remains to be seen whether supporters will feel as tired as the players after the exhaustive process to whittle down 32 teams to a single champion.

The beneficiaries are the television companies, and the clubs, who will see a corresponding increase in revenue.

Three qualifying rounds

The 1999/2000 competition actually began with a first qualifying round on 13 July, less than seven weeks after Manchester United's triumph in Barcelona.

[ image: The next captain to do this could have played 17 European games]
The next captain to do this could have played 17 European games
But not one of the teams who played in that week's games have made it into the elite group of 32.

Three qualifying rounds have gradually pushed aside the champions of small countries such as Wales and both halves of Ireland.

At the same time teams from the larger nations - some of them who finished as low as fourth - have been introduced to replace them.

Two group stages

The 32 survivors have now been divided into eight groups of four, with the clubs playing each other on a home-and-away basis.

Only eight of these teams will be left with nothing at all when the first group stage ends in November.

The top two teams in each group go through to a second group stage of the Champions League.

The third-placed teams are transferred to the Uefa Cup to meet 24 survivors of the first three rounds of that competition in a straight knockout.

The group winners and runners-up take part in a second stage of four groups played between November and March.

Knockout stages

The winners and runners-up from this stage then play two-legged quarter-finals in April.

The semi-finals are decided on a similar knockout basis, home and away during May.

The final remains a showpiece occasion at a neutral venue, with the first champions of the new millennium being decided on 24 May.

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