When the Champions League group stage draw made, Group F was always going to be the perennial 'group of death'.
For the most part, it has lived up to the billing. Marseille’s no-showing in all five group games has meant that instead of a four-way shootout for two spots in the last sixteen, we have been left with a three way battle between Napoli, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund.
It has been well-documented that one club might be eliminated with a total of 12 points - a record points haul for a group stage elimination.
What makes things cruel on whomever the unwanted record bestows itself upon, will be the fact that clubs in other groups will progress with fewer points from considerably slightly easier groups.
Juventus could progress from Group B with just seven points – four of which were gained against FC Copenhagen, whilst Zenit St. Petersburg could progress with as little as six points – half of the possible 12 point tally that one of the unfortunate Group F sides have the chance to amass.
Whilst Napoli, Dortmund and Arsenal have all competed to win the group, other clubs have been content to battle for second place behind Barcelona or Bayern Munich- his has become an annual occurrence.
UEFA should consider a change in the qualification format for the last 16. Instead of eight runner-ups joining the eight group winners in the last 16, a possible tweaking may produce a more equitable format of ensuring the battle for last 16 spots remains fierce.
By using a format whereby eight wildcard teams from any group may progress into the last 16 alongside the eight group winners, the Champions League eradicates clubs with a lack of ambition who are content with battling for a runners-up spot (read Milan, Celtic and Ajax), whilst ensuring that clubs who aimed the highest, progress the furthest.
With the “eight wildcards from any group” system in place, this format also creates inter-group competition as clubs are not only competing for a last 16 birth in their own group, but will compete for a knockout spot against teams from other groups.
Dead-rubber games on match days five and six would also be reduced in the process. Taking this season’s group stage as an example, with all three of the possible 12-point sides from Group F progressing to the last 16, the domino effect would take place elsewhere.
Juventus would potentially need to beat Galatasaray instead of being able to progress with just a draw. Milan would possibly need to beat Ajax instead of progressing with just a draw as the current equation stands.
Inconsistent and unimpressive Porto and Zenit St. Petersburg would not be rewarded with a last 16 place as one of them will be at the end of Match Day six. Regardless of which club you support, all three of the Group F contenders are a harder match for your beloved team than what Zenit St. Petersburg and Porto would be, based on the five Champions League games each side has played so far.
The neutrals will agree. The current format needs changing.
As match day six comes round and as one of Napoli, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund prepare for life in the Europa League, the Champions League will be a poorer competition without any one of them.
UEFA need to ensure that eliminations with double-figure points tallies are reduced, especially when the current format promotes a culture of being content to play with second place or progressing into the last 16 for being less-worse than two other clubs in the same group.
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