The UEFA Champions League comprises three qualifying rounds, a play-off round, a group stage and four knockout rounds.
In matches in the three qualifying rounds and the play-off stage, clubs play two matches against each other on a home-and-away basis. The club which scores the greater aggregate of goals qualifies for the next round, with away goals and then penalties used to determine the winner in the event of a draw.
The ten winners in the play-off round ties – five from the best-placed path and five from the champions path – join 22 automatic entrants in the 32-team group stage. The clubs are split into eight groups of four teams, who play home and away against each of their pool opponents between September and December to decide which two teams from each section advance to the first knockout round. The third-place finishers in each group enter the UEFA Europa League round of 32.
From the last 16 until the semi-finals, clubs play two matches against each other on a home-and-away basis with the same rules as the qualifying and play-off rounds applied. In the last 16, group winners play runners-up other than teams from their own pool or nation, while from the quarter-finals on the draw is free.
The final is decided by a single match, which this season will be played at Fußball Arena München on Saturday 19 May 2012.
Further details, including the criteria for separating teams that finish level on points in a group, can be found in the official competition regulations.
The UEFA Champions League, UEFA's most prestigious club competition, underwent a series of significant changes in 2009/10 following a decision from the UEFA Executive Committee in November 2007. This format remains in place for 2011/12.
The main points were:
• No changes to the format of the main competition, which still involves 32 teams, split into eight groups of four in the group stage, followed by the knockout phase. The eight teams that finish the groups in third place cross over into the UEFA Europa League knockout phase.
• The 2009/10 access list was changed according to the following principles: 22 teams (21 teams + the titleholder) qualify directly for the group stage instead of 16. The three national associations with the highest UEFA coefficient ranking each had three teams gain automatic entry to the group stage, with the countries ranked 4 to 6 in the standings having two automatic qualifiers and the associations ranked 7 to 13 having one.
• Since 2009/10 there have been four qualifying rounds (including a play-off round), played in home-and-away ties, to complete the 32 participants in the UEFA Champions League group stage. There are two qualifying routes; the Champions Route and the League Route.
• Champions Route: The first qualifying round comprises two two-legged ties involving the champions of the countries ranked 50 to 53 in UEFA competition. The winners of those ties progress to the second qualifying round where they are joined by the champions of the 32 countries ranked 17 to 49 (except Liechtenstein). The victorious sides from those 17 ties join the champions from the associations ranked 14 to 16 in the third qualifying round, with the winners of those ten pairings reaching the play-off round. These five play-off ties will take place on a home-and-away basis with the winners qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
• League Route: The third-placed side from the sixth-ranked member association, plus the runners-up from the associations ranked 7 to 15, start the competition in the third qualifying round. The winners of these five ties progress to the play-off round, where they are joined by the fourth-placed sides from the associations ranked 1 to 3 and the third-placed teams from the associations ranked 4 and 5. The victorious teams from the five play-off ties qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage.
• Teams from the Champions Route and the League Route cannot meet in UEFA Champions League qualifying.
• The losing team from each of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round ties will go into the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
• The losing team from each of the UEFA Champions League play-off ties will go into the UEFA Europa League group stage.
• The team who finishes in third position in each of the UEFA Champions League groups goes into the UEFA Europa League Round of 32. The four best third-ranked teams will be seeded for the Round of 32 with the group winners of the UEFA Europa League group stage.
• The matches in the UEFA Champions League first knockout round will be split over four weeks instead of two, using dates reserved for the UEFA club competition in February and March to maximise live match opportunities.
• The final is to be played on a Saturday, with kick-off time at 20.45 CET.
• The UEFA Champions League play-off rounds will be centrally marketed by UEFA in accordance with the concept already used for the group stage.
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