It should be the most wonderful time of the year in the Champions League, but instead we're bracing ourselves for a week of anti-climax. Just sixteen of the 32 teams left in the competition have something to play for on matchday six over Tuesday and Wednesday, making many of the scheduled matches meaningless.
With the richest teams in world football coming up against teams who simply cannot compete on that level, we too often see unequal scorelines, walkovers and barely competitive games being played out. Just look at some of the results in this season’s group stage:
Real Madrid 6-0 Galatasaray
Club Brugge 0-5 PSG
Tottenham 5-0 Red Star
Red Star 0-4 Tottenham
Man City 5-1 Atalanta
Red Star 0-6 Bayern Munich
These results do not epitomise the premier European football competition. Simply put, the group stages are, for the most part, a load of waffle and box-ticking before we get the meaty goodness of the knockout stage.
More often than not in the group phase, games are basically over before they have really begun. Almost 10 percent of group matches in the past five seasons have seen teams scoring five-plus goals to win by four or more. Routs are the norm.
Amazingly, this has actually been one of the more competitive Champions League seasons but we still find ourselves in a position where managers of heavyweight clubs are being asked more about how many youngsters they will pick than how they intend to take down their opponents.
Jose Mourinho should be taking Tottenham to Bayern Munich with his focus solely on achieving a great result for his club but that instead he is using the game as a rotation exercise.
"Because we are going to finish second it doesn’t matter the result, but it's very important for the players. Very important for the players that are going to play," Mourinho said this week.
We know that after that we go to Wolves on the weekend, and Wolves is one of the teams that is in front of us in the table. We have to look to this game, to Bayern, with all these in mind.
That should not be the talk of a Champions League manager, neither Pep Guardiola's need to insist he will take the trip to Dinamo Zagreb seriously in order to retain the integrity of Group C: “We’ll travel with the intention to win. Of course, you always need to have a sense of urgency to take the result and win the games, but out of respect for Shakhtar Donetsk and Atalanta we have to do that.”
Ahead of the final round of fixtures, we know just half of the qualifiers for the knockout stages and it is conceivable that the European champions Liverpool could still fall at this hurdle. Chelsea, Ajax and Valencia are all still vying for the two qualification spots in Group H and Atalanta will take on Shakhtar in a straight shoot-out for the knockout stages. These are very much the exceptions that prove the rule.
The biggest shock one can envisage is that Red Bull Salzburg could knock Liverpool out with a win. However, even with their incredible development of youth players and the fact they haven’t even been in the group stage for 24 years, that potential win isn’t really the story of an underdog. Being funded by the biggest energy drinks supplier in the world hardly puts them on the same level as Sutton United.
The group stage simply provides too many one-sided showings from Europe’s big clubs and the current format of the competition also gives them more second chances than anyone really deserves. Liverpool lost half of their games in last season’s group stage and still went on to win the entire tournament. Real Madrid didn’t turn up in their first game this term and have been fairly poor throughout, yet Los Blancos still qualified with a game to spare.
In the rest of the groups, there have been no shocks. The big boys Barcelona, PSG, Manchester City, Juventus and Tottenham are all through with a game to spare. Every season we get the same thing, the same predictable group stages and more or less the same teams competing in the last 16.
There has been some initial talk of change, but the European Club Association’s suggestion of a European Super League has temporarily put Champions League reform on the back burner, as UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin revealed earlier this year:
“We are currently in the process of gathering feedback from our national associations and I feel – more generally – that a new discussion now would be premature as we are analysing feedback and proposals coming from different parties.
“At the same time, as you know very well, UEFA deliberately kicked off the review process for the 2024-27 competition cycle much ahead of our regular schedule and we are therefore in no hurry. We do not, in any case, expect to make a decision this year.”
Of course, whether changes are made in five years’ time or not, it all comes down to money. The extra games and the qualification process all means more money for UEFA and the clubs participating. It isn’t that much of an issue that we see the rich teams in the knockout stages as they can produce some spectacular drama, but where is the jeopardy? Where is the drama until February or March?
Last season was potentially the best of the lot, with Tottenham’s late drama, Ajax’s shock results and, of course, Liverpool’s awesome semi-final comeback against Barcelona. But all of this amazing fare came in the knockout stages. Can anybody even remember one standout moment from last season’s Champions League group stage?
The group stage is obsolete. The simple way to bring some drama to the tournament before the New Year is to make it a knockout competition from the get-go. No second chances. No taking it easy. Lose over two legs and you are out.
Of course, the huge amount of money in the Champions League means that we are unlikely to see any drastic changes, but there needs to be some serious consideration given to how some life can be injected into the group stage.
Otherwise, this tiresome ordeal of watching countless dead-rubber games come November and December will continue ad infinitum.