Champions League must change for Europe's elite

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The Champions League has no room for European minnows. Twenty years after the competition's inception, it's time for a drastic reform of the tournament as it is in its current format.

Tonight's conclusion of the first qualifying round second leg ties between the respective champions of the six lowest ranked European domestic leagues within UEFA, hardly whets the appetite of the neutral football fan. And, why should it?

Everyone knows that Europe's elite club competition really starts in September, when the early entrants are whittled down to the last-32. Eight groups of four teams, with seeded pots to safeguard the cream of the crop. The 'Champions League proper' as it is more commonly called.

Firmly established as the number one contest that clubs, coaches, players and supporters collectively most enjoy being involved in, at its best, the Champions League is a competition like no other.

Providing two decades of top-class football, every year the latter stages of the event encapsulates the glitz, the glamour, and the prestige that goes with a club's association with the tournament.

Whilst the opportunity for a small side like Northern Ireland's Linfield or Malta's Valletta FC to mix it with the biggest and best on the continent is a romantic gesture, the reality is a lot more humbling, and only degrades the competition by such clubs' inclusion.

Last season's fairy-tale story of Cypriot side APOEL FC, whose great run from the Champions League qualifiers all the way to the quarter-finals, is an uncommon one.

After progressing from their group against the odds, they met their match in the form of Real Madrid - the 8-2 aggregate scoreline only emphasised the gulf in class between the two clubs - it was essentially a free passage to the semis for the Spanish giants.

Unsurpassed globally, the Champions League's biggest matches regularly attract television audiences in excess of 500 million. But, viewing figures take a remarkable tumble during less significant games, either played out by smaller teams, or in situations that have no bearing on either sides' eventual fate.

Add to that the fact there is seldom any history or rivalry between bigger teams and their comparatively lower-profile counterparts, and there is a strong case to argue that Europe's powerhouse nations like Spain, England, and Germany should be handed more places for entry.

The 2012-13 campaign will see four participants from the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga, with three teams from Italy's Serie A, France's Ligue 1, and Portugal's Primeira Liga. Outside of that, the only other countries worth mentioning are Holland, Russia and Ukraine - who each have one or two sides capable of making an impact.

Rather than wasting time and effort with the preliminary rounds between a bunch of no-hopers from all four corners of the continent, UEFA should focus on filling their boots with as many sides from the biggest leagues, to ensure that only the very best teams can compete.

European success should not be defined by simply qualifying for the Champions League, regardless of how much money is on offer through a team's successful passage. Every participant must set their sights on winning the trophy outright.

The rise of the Europa League in recent years, proves that there is still plenty of quality teams on the periphery of top tier inclusion, and should be given priority ahead of lesser sides from smaller nations to maximise the overall strength of the competition.

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