The Champions League is back after a two-month absence and, as usual, all the big guns are in the knockout stages, looking to battle it out for Europe’s top prize.
But should that be a criticism of the premier continental competition?
While it’s great to see all the big teams at the tournament’s climax, there is little on offer in terms of those fairytale journeys, as money and power often dictate the same old story year in, year out.
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It has led to the Champions League becoming all-too predictable and this could be down to the format.
The group stage system, introduced in 1991, inevitably leaves the more powerful clubs at an advantage, mainly thanks to the seeding system.
And despite recent changes to the seeding criteria (which now separates the top national champions across eight groups), we are still left with a competition that favours the wealthy.
Let’s also look at the name: the ‘Champions’ League. Perhaps this is a little pedantic, but the competition, by and large, is neither a) a league, or b) made up of champions.
Allowing multiple teams from top nations may have made the tournament much more difficult to win, but it almost completely strips away the achievement of winning a domestic honour.
The semi-finalists of the last decade come from a total of five countries (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). This isn’t the ‘Champions League’, it’s merely an annual gathering of football’s rich and famous.
What’s more, the new seeding system that is said to benefit national champions will most likely mean they will be left with a rotten group anyway.
What would be the problem in letting just the champions take part? This simply makes the Champions League more exclusive, and could potentially heighten its status among Europe’s elite.
In fact, more big teams should face each other in the earlier stages. It would give the competition more credibility and lessen the effect of financial muscle, making it more about the luck of the draw.
Think how exciting the FA Cup is. Now imagine an FA Cup without replays and with better teams. Surely this is the way forward?
And to those who’d say that going out in the first round would make it a waste of time: wouldn’t that produce better games? No more playing the kids against some minnows from Macedonia. Every game matters.
You’ve also got to consider other drawbacks, such as the away goals rule – just get rid of it.
Brought in to stop teams intent on going ultra-defensive or ‘parking the bus’, as it’s known these days, we’re left with teams unwilling to attack on their own patch in order to gain an advantage of the rule away from home.
But never has it been a mark of achievement to score goals on a particular patch of grass.
And that’s why we should just revert to a simple knockout system. The group stage has completely devalued the Europa League and there was nothing wrong with the old format.
Gone are the days of seeing the likes of Alaves or Middlesbrough reaching European finals; it’s the oil-rich and megabucks owners that rule the roost nowadays.
And while changes to the format are being rumoured, it’s unlikely we will see an end to their dominance any time soon.