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Champions League: Should the second group stage return?

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0-2, 0-4, 0-1, 0-2, 2-0, 2-4, 1-1, 1-6. These are the results from the first legs of this season's Champions League round of 16.

Overall, the away sides (the winners of their groups) have outscored the home sides (the runners-up) by 20 goals to 6. There are only two ties, those between Galatasaray and Chelsea and between Olympiacos and Manchester United, which are still very much alive and only one home side won their first leg.

If we thought the results of the last fortnight were one-sided, who knows what to expect when the group winners play at home in the second legs?

This is not too unlike the situation this time last year, when only two of the group runners-up won their first leg against a group winner and the group winners had outscored the runners-up by, an albeit more modest, 12 goals to 9 goals. And after the second legs, only two of the runners-up progressed to the quarter finals - Real Madrid (who beat Manchester United) and Galatasaray (who knocked out Schalke).

So how can we make the Champions League exciting from February onwards, rather than forcing fans to wait until March and April time for the games to become truly competitive?

Well, my solution is one that is well-known to European fans and which worked for years. The second group stage was removed for the 2003-04 season and, while an unpopular move with clubs who were missing out on four more games' revenue, fans welcomed the decision as the knockout rounds were always viewed as the best part of the tournament and surely the sooner they started the better, right?

Well, that was the belief at the time, but who would now say that this extra knockout round is a grand spectacle? With only two of eight matches having a second leg really worth watching, I would say that a return to the group stage would only increase the competitive balance and increase the excitement of the narrowing down of the tournament to the best eight on the continent.

Ex-Manchester United chief executive David Gill commented: "I think all the big clubs would have preferred to keep the second stage of the Champions League." He went on to explain that the second group stage consisted of much better quality than the first, saying: "There was a higher quality of opposition in the second group phase than the first one."

Gill is exactly right to say that the quality in the second group stage is there. Imagine some of the second seeds of this year's Last 16 taking on each other: Manchester City, Arsenal and AC Milan playing each other for points. These would be competitive games unlike the matches that these sides have actually had to contend with. We would also be treated to extra matches between group winners, scrapping for every point available.

The last time the second group stage was played, in the 2002-03 tournament, no team won every match and three of the groups saw the second quarter final qualifier sneak through by just a point or on goal difference. And the biggest win was a 4-0 home win for eventual finalists Juventus over FC Basel - not at all as bad as Real Madrid's 6-1 win this week and just the same as PSG's away win last Tuesday.

I know not to get my hopes up of seeing this stage return. UEFA will never admit that it made a mistake in removing it and arguments over player welfare and the number of games they have to play will come out. But what difference will four extra matches really make when the positives of extra revenues, of more matches (and thus an extra incentive to do all it takes to qualify from the first qualifying round) and, most importantly, of competitive matches with uncertain outcomes outweigh the negatives?

The Last 16 has simply become a box to be ticked for most group winners before they can get on with the "real" competition in the quarter finals. A second group stage would make the last 16 exciting again.

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Topics:
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UEFA Champions League

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This article has been written by a member of the GiveMeSport Writing Academy and does not represent the views of GiveMeSport.com or SportsNewMedia. The views and opinions expressed are solely that of the author credited at the top of this article. GiveMeSport.com and SportsNewMedia do not take any responsibility for the content of its contributors.

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