Match Day 6 of the Champions League has come and passed. Besides winner take all clashes between Manchester City and AS Roma at the Stadio Olimpico and Liverpool and Basel at Anfield, there really was not much drama on hand. Extremely weakened sides from Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid threatened to undermine the integrity of the competition with their opponents still trying to qualify for either the last 16 or the Europa League place. However, the gaps in quality between the top sides in the Champions League and the rest showed as all three teams still managed to pick up the three points.
Last night I bought tickets to the Chelsea against Sporting Lisbon match, enticed by the reduced ticket prices that Chelsea offer for Champions League group stage matches as well as a hefty loyalty point reward bonus if I want to go to another high profile Chelsea match in the future. When I (as well as everyone else who bought tickets before the match sold out) purchased tickets, it was still unclear whether or not Chelsea would be through, especially after they stumbled to a 1-1 draw away in Slovenia against Maribor. The match was (with the exception of the 3,000 travelling Sporting fans) extremely forgettable as the Chelsea fans were mostly silent throughout the match, with very little interest in the proceedings until 18-year-old Ruben Loftus-Cheek was granted his debut in the closing stages. In fact, the most heard chant at Stamford Bridge was “We Hate Tottenham and we hate Tottenham,” but truth be told that was mainly because there was almost no other chanting.
The UEFA Champions League prides itself on being the premier club competition in the world, but unfortunately the final two matchdays of the Group Stage all too often cause fixture congestion and dull, boring matches. In Jose Mourinho’s pre-match comments, he cited next week’s trip to Championship side Derby in the Capital One Cup as a reason for resting his top players. A manager resting his top players in Europe’s most important competition because of a match in his secondary domestic cup competition? Something seems very broken about that.
The Champions League group stage is too drawn out and designed to create a safety net for the top clubs to ensure they get through to the knockout stages. But unfortunately this creates matches that become increasingly repetitive. For example, Manchester City have played Bayern Munich as many times in the last four years as they have Queens Park Rangers. Ajax have drawn against Barcelona in the group stage the last two seasons, and in the three seasons prior they were drawn against Real Madrid. Also, because of the differences in financial clout between the top clubs in the English, Spanish, German and Italian leagues (as well as oil giants PSG and Monaco) and the sides that qualify for the Champions League through the Champions path, many of the matches are extremely one sided and lack intrigue. In fact, they only seem to be played to help the smaller sides out financially. Of the five teams to qualify through the Champions path (Malmo, Ludogrets, APOEL, BATE Borisov and Maribor), none of them managed to finish off the bottom of their groups, and the five sides combined for a total of three wins and five draws in 30 matches.
Because of these inherent problems with the Champions league group stage, I have come up with another proposal for how the group stage should be conducted. It’s almost identical to the way the UEFA Cup group stage was conducted before it’s rebranding as the UEFA Europa League, but with slightly different qualification to the knockout stages. The Champions League group stages should consist of 40 teams split into eight groups of five. Each team plays every other team once, and each team are guaranteed two home matches and two away matches. The top three teams in each group qualify for the knockout stages, with the winning team granted a bye into the round of 16.
Since this proposed group stage only contains four matches, it reduces the fixture congestion for some teams (those that finish 1st, 4th or 5th in their group) as they can put more focus on their domestic cups that seem to have gone by the wayside in the Champions League era. Also, because of the reduced number of fixtures, the difference in points between the sides will be smaller, which will create the drama on the final match day that is lacking under the current format. Also, because the group winners receive a bye into the round of 16, it creates a tangible incentive to win the group. It also preserves UEFA’s safety net of helping out the big clubs but gives the smaller sides a chance to progress as well as giving an extra eight teams the opportunity to compete with the top sides in Europe. But overall, this proposal cuts down on the meaningless matches that we too often see towards the end of the group stage and instead shift (some of) them to a more meaningful ground, that being a two-legged knockout round between 2nd and 3rd placed sides that will create far more intrigue than Match Day 5 and 6.
While this problem does have its flaws (mainly being who plays whom away and where the additional eight teams would come from), I still believe it as a better alternative to the system that is currently in place and fixes many of the problems that plague the Champions League group stage.
Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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