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Champions League: Format, history, previous winners & how to watch

The Champions League is the premier competition in European club football, with the top sides battling it out on an annual basis to be crowned the best team on the continent.

Champions League format

The Champions League is Europe's premier club competition and for the 2023/24 season 78 teams from 53 of the 55 UEFA member associations have taken part.

Most countries only have one representative, although depending on UEFA's coefficient ranking, as well as who the previous season's Champions League and Europa League winners were, some nations can have as many as five teams involved.

There are five qualifying rounds just to reach the Champions League proper, with teams entering at various stages of qualifying depending on their country's coefficient, while clubs from the higher-ranked nations secure automatic places in the group stage.

In total, 32 teams make it through to the group stage where they are split into eight groups of four, with the top two in each section progressing to the knockout rounds.

All ties during the knockout stage are played over two legs in a home and away format, with the exception being the final, which is staged at a predetermined neutral venue that changes on an annual basis.

Champions League history

The idea of a continent-wide knockout competition was first introduced ahead of the 1955/56 season, with Spanish giants Real Madrid winning the inaugural European Cup, beating French club Reims 4-3 in the final.

The competition remained in the same format for the next 36 years, with only the defending champions and winners of the previous season's domestic leagues eligible to play.

However, that all changed ahead of the 1992/93 season, as UEFA rebranded the competition, renaming it the Champions League and introducing a group stage rather than just a straight knockout format as it had previously been.

Since the 1992/93 season, the competition has continued to grow, with 32 teams currently competing in the group stage, while the biggest leagues in Europe have multiple representatives in the competition.

Champions League most successful team

Real Madrid were not only crowned the first European champions, but they are also the most successful team in the history of the competition, winning it a record 14 times, most recently beating Liverpool in the 2021/22 final.

AC Milan are the next most-decorated side, with the Italian giants lifting the trophy seven times, one more than both Bayern Munich and Liverpool, the latter being Britain's most successful team in the competition's history.

Barcelona (five) and Ajax (four) have also enjoyed plenty of success in the past, while Manchester United (three), Chelsea (two) and Nottingham Forest (two) are the other British teams to have lifted the famous 'Big Eared' trophy on more than one occasion.

Champions League how to watch

British viewers can watch all Champions League matches from the group stage onwards on TNT Sports, while in recent years the final of the competition has also been available to watch free-to-air.

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