Matchday One in the Champions’ League group stages had a familiar feel
about it. All the English teams won, both Raul and Filipo Inzaghi scored for their respective clubs, Real Madrid were involved in 7 goal humdinger, and only one of the record 8 newcomers managed a victory on their debut in the Champions League as it is today. It’s all becoming a bit stale. This year’s tournament snuck up on us, and the sense of anticipation of the beginning of what is the biggest club competition in the world wasn’t as evident as previous seasons. Something needs to be done to put the life back into Old Big Ears.
The first rounds of matches are usually cagey affairs, so it was no surprise to see a rather dull game at the San Siro between Inter Milan and Barcelona. But it did not make it any less disappointing. Comfortably the best teams in their respective leagues last season, but their offered very little of their true capabilities. There was an array of sub-plots for us to potentially enjoy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s return to the San Siro: Samuel Eto’o facing the club he plundered 108 goals in 145 La Liga games: a first face-off between the two stylish young managers, Jose Mouriho and Pep Guardiola. But the game did not live up to anywhere near the hype.
But one must ask what incentive was there for either side to win? Their Group F opponents are Rubin Kazan and Dynamo Kiev. Teams Barce and Inter would be highly confident of turning over, particularly as both Eastern European clubs respective domestic seasons are coming to an end in the near future. So both sides happily settled for a point, safe in the knowledge that they should have very few problems progressing.
Alex Ferguson decided that the Champions League was the right time to pick Gary Neville in his starting XI for only the second time this season against Besiktas. Wayne Rooney played 64 minutes as a lone striker, a role that clearly frustrates him (like in Gelsenkirchen, July 1 2006). At 0-0, Rooney was substituted for Michael Owen. Had Manchester United been drawing 0-0 in a Premier League game, there is no way Rooney would be sacrificed. He would have to be completely lame for Ferguson to even consider removing him from the fray. United won the game, but the point remains that it was not vital that they did.
Over the past few seasons, the shine has been taken off the group stages of the competition by the fact that it’s more of a procession for the big clubs, before the real competition starts in February. Liverpool have done their best in recent years to spice up the early rounds by struggling through to the knock-out stages. Their thrilling triumph over Olympiakos in 2004 will never be forgotten. Winning their final 3 group games in 2007 to qualify for the last 16 was another significant achievement. Newcastle memorably qualified in the 2002/03 season for the second group stage (remember that!) despite losing their opening 3 fixtures in the group. But these stories are few and far between, and the time for a change is now.
So why not revert to the old knockout system? Get 64 teams after the earlier qualifying rounds, put them all into those massive fruit bowls that UEFA use for these draws and go from there. There would obviously a seeding system in place to avoid any massive games too early in the competition.
For the first round proper, half the ties could be played one week, with the remaining half played a week later. 8 games on the Tuesday and Wednesday night of each week. The same number of games that are on each night nowadays. Having 16 Champions League knock-out ties on a single night would be a logistical nightmare. I do not think those poor souls on Gillette Soccer Special would be able to keep up with that number of simultaneous kick-offs.
So instead of the teams reaching the final playing in 13 games, they would need 11 games. That is just 2 less matches than what is in the current format. So teams complaining about the loss in revenues from television and gate receipts would be better served concentrating on actually fighting their way through the knock-out rounds, rather that sleepwalking their way through the league format.
There would be a greater scope for shocks. An early goal for a minnow in away from home against the might of a European superpower could lead to an amazing night. Not as just a mere inconvenience as it is when scored in a similar scenario in the group stages. Knock-out football is approached in a different manner than league football, and is interesting to consider what possibilities and opportunities it would bring throughout the course of the season, rather than have it limited as it currently is.
Excitement would not be restricted to after Christmas in the Champions League as it usually is these days. The group stages have provided us with some memorable contests in the 17 years of its existence. Manchester United’s pair of 3-3 draws against Barcelona in 1998, and Monaco’s incredible 8-3 victory over Deportivo La Coruna in 2003 stand out, but as with most things in life change is inevitable.
The clubs would no doubt fight this proposition to the hilt. Anything that could affect their income in any way, shape or form is very much looked down upon. But if Michael Platini wanted such a change made, there is no better man to implement it. The UEFA president has shown leadership and determination in his stint so far, and he could be the broker. However, if this change in format were to happen, they would surely have to change the name from the Champions League. Whatever could they call it? The European Cup? God forbid.