By Blair Newman, Football Whispers
The Champions League is Europe’s premier club competition. Football fans across the continent tune in to watch every Tuesday and Wednesday night the tournament is on, regardless of whether their beloved team is in involved.
However, recent seasons have led to uncertainty over the true usefulness of its existing format. As it stands, the group stage is when it begins properly, with 32 teams drawn into eight groups of four. The top two in each group then go through to the knockout stages, and that’s where the fun really begins.
This season’s opening round of Champions League matches thus far has not painted a picture of competitiveness. If anything, it has done the exact opposite. Of the eight fixtures completed, five finished with one side winning by a margin of three goals or more. There were three 3-0 wins, one 5-0 and one 6-0.
These scores reflect the layout of the competition as it stands. The group stages see the continent’s best take on champions from Europe’s traditionally less successful footballing nations; what follows is often a painful series of one-sided beatings.
Here our friends at Football Whispers argue that the current format needs revitalising in order for the Champions League to give full entertainment value.
For Scottish champions Celtic, Swiss champions Basel, Cypriot champions APOEL and more, the £11.4million in guaranteed income that comes with Champions League group stage qualification is a huge windfall. So too is the £1.35million per win and £0.4million per draw extra that can be accrued.
Thus, when it comes to the group stage, everyone wins except for the fans.
The relatively smaller clubs receive substantial financial boosts simply for participating, not to mention the additional revenues that come with meeting a Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Manchester United. Meanwhile, the traditional giants and genuine contenders get an opportunity to experiment tactically and warm up before the real cut and thrust of the knockout stages.
The supporters, however, are left watching large amounts of non-competitive matches. Indeed, of the entire first round draw, which features 96 games in total, around a third could be viewed as highly one-sided. For some teams, such as Qarabag and Maribor, securing one win would be seen as an excellent accomplishment.
There are, of course, some matches to whet the appetite.
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Bayern versus PSG represents a meeting of German champions and rich French hopefuls; Chelsea versus Atletico Madrid sees two of the continent’s greatest defensive tacticians clash; Barcelona versus Juventus is a wonderful match between prestigious clubs; Manchester City versus Napoli will be a sublime contest of quick passing and whirring movement; and the trio of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur should provide a spectacle to savour.
However, those games are in the minority as truly competitive fixtures involving teams with serious ambitions at a long Champions League run. So the question then is: Is a 32-team group stage really the best way to begin the tournament proper?
The simple answer to that question is: No, probably not.
For much of the competition’s history, including the time period in which it was known simply as the European Cup, the Champions League has been a straight knockout tournament. This was the case from the year of its inception in 1955 through to 1991. Thus, for 36 out of 62 seasons, the competition has not involved any kind of group stage.
During the ‘knockout years’, there was a comparatively even playing field. While the top English, Spanish, Italian and German sides still generally dominated, there was the occasional upset. In 1967, Celtic were crowned kings of Europe; in 1986, Romania’s Steaua Bucharest achieved the same feat; and in 1991 Red Star Belgrade of Serbia won the competition.
However, since the group stage was introduced in the 1991/92 season, there have been just three winners outside of the top four leagues – Marseille in 1993, Ajax in 1995, and Porto in 2004. Not one single eastern European team has reached a final, let alone won the whole thing.
Indeed, since 91/92, 47 of the 52 finalists have been from the top four leagues – 16 from Spain, 14 from Italy, nine from England, and eight from Germany. And it’s possible to argue that the group stage format has only further regimented the established hierarchy.
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The seeding system, which divides the 32 group stage qualifiers into four different pots, often favours those from the wealthier leagues. Thus, it consolidates power. Where before one of the comparatively smaller clubs had a chance at springing an upset over two legs, they must now hurdle six difficult fixtures in order to obtain a sniff of further progress.
This situation is a self-perpetuating one; each year the traditional giants are seeded favourably and each year they progress comfortably, guaranteeing another favourable seeding the following year. Not only does this reduce the unpredictability of the tournament, but it reduces the overall quality by constantly bolstering the top teams.
Perhaps the solution to this issue could be found in a nod to the past. Instead of four seeding pots, there could be two. The first and second seeds could then be drawn against one another in 16 knockout ties, each of which would take place over two legs. This format would even up the playing field slightly, while adding to the drama of the Champions League.
However, the harsh reality is that finances tend to dictate in football. And, while the group stage is the least riveting period of the tournament, it also ensures 96 matches. The knockout format proposed above would only ensure 32. Less matches means less money, and, unfortunately, that isn’t going to appeal to the organisers.
Once this season’s group stage is done, the knockout rounds will begin and the Champions League’s most intense, high-quality games will arrive. Many will be left wondering why they couldn’t have begun sooner.