The Champions League continues to preference quantity over quality
The Champions League, so we’re relentlessly reminded, is the premier club competition in the world.
Several times former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed the tournament had surpassed the World Cup in terms of excitement, describing recent editions of FIFA’s showpiece as “better than a trip to the dentist, I suppose.”
That remains a debate for another day, however that particular quote was in response to the accusation in 2011 that the group stage of the Champions League had grown stale and predictable.
What was telling from Ferguson’s response was he didn’t necessarily disagree with that assessment, admitting the knockouts are where the real magic happens.
The Champions League, from the last 16 onwards, has unquestionably produced some classic encounters. However the early round is getting increasingly more predictable, which, essentially, is having a detrimental effect on the overall quality of the competition.
Of the 16 fixtures contested over the last two days, less than half were of genuine consequence. Olympiakos were always going to beat Anderlecht, rendering Benfica’s tie against a Paris Saint-Germain reserve team irrelevant.
Real Sociedad have been so poor they couldn’t even reach the Europa League, meaning a Bayer Leverkusen win was inevitable. Manchester United required just a point at home to Shakhtar to top their group. The quality of the game befitting of the lack of drama.
United, Bayern, Madrid, PSG, Atletico and Barcelona all virtually secured that weeks ago. Even Chelsea, so poor in losing twice against Basel, have still waltzed through Group E, largely unworried.
Galatasaray v Juventus could have been fantastic, instead reduced to a farce at UEFA’s insistence of playing the game on Wednesday night to avoid clashing with Monday’s draw (neither side have a game scheduled for next week).
It’s only in Group F (minus Marseille) where the identity of the group winner has had any great mystery. And why? Because the quality of three of the four teams.
And therein lies the increased problem with the format, it’s not until you cut it down to 16 teams there is any consistent quality.
The champions of Belgium, Russia, Scotland and Denmark (historic footballing nations) all finished rock bottom of their respective groups, offering little.
Such is the financial power of the major western European league clubs – increasingly from private, outside investment – teams from smaller nations can’t compete.
Once upon a time a side like Dynamo Kiev of 1999 could make a significant impact. Nowadays those players would be cherry-picked by the elite at 18 and farmed out on loan to the Eredivisie.
Reaching the knockouts is as much a business desire as it is a footballing one for Europe’s elite, while broadcasters and sponsors putting so much money in increases the demand for quantity of coverage, to the detriment of quality.
The knockout rounds, coupled with the huge money generated, continue to justify the current format but, like its misleading name, the Champions League has more than its share of imperfections.