So Matchday 2 of the Champions League is upon us. For the eventual winners of the competition, they will know that they are 12 games away from the first Saturday final of the competition, being held in Madrid in May. However, for the likes of the Big Four from England and the top sides from Italy and Spain, there is no doubt that the group stage of the competition is nothing more than a formality and an inconvenience for them as they try to settle into the domestic season.
In the first round of group stage matches held a fortnight ago, AZ Alkmaar were the only second seeds to lose a match when playing a team seeded below them in their group. Empty seats at Stamford Bridge, in particular, on a Champions League night are becoming more and more obvious. Fans of the big clubs are no longer prepared to fork out large sums of money to watch the likes of Apoel Nicosia, the champions of Cyprus who Chelsea face this week, and Unirea Urziceni, the Romanian champions who find themselves in Rangers group.
Michel Platini has tried to revamp the competition in order to allow more champions into the competition, hence the appearance Debrecen, the Hungarian champions, at Anfield a couple of weeks ago. However, the non-competitive nature of these matches, and the knowledge that it is unlikely that any top seeds will be knocked out of the competition at this group stage, means that the Champions League really fails to come alive until the knockout stage in February.
On 6-0-6 on BBC Radio 5 Live on Saturday, a Manchester United supporter phoned-in to discuss the prospect of a European League being created, with the top sides leaving their domestic leagues behind. The prospect of Real Madrid vs. Liverpool, or AC Milan vs.Arsenal on a Saturday afternoon is certainly appealing, however, the domestic game could not survive if it were to be abandoned by the top clubs. Results such as Burnley beating Manchester United and Wigan beating Chelsea, are why we all love the Premier League so much and why it is the bread and butter of English football.
However, the threat of a European League, and the demise of the domestic game as we know it, is why the Champions League needs to be amended to maintain its position as the premier European club competition. This writer is old enough to remember going to Ibrox for Rangers against Leeds in the 1992/93 season and a Battle of Britain encounter. What made the two ties between the then champions of Scotland and England so special was the straight knock-out element to the tie. One hundred and eighty minutes, capacity crowds, a bubbling atmosphere and memorable matches. That was what the European Cup so memorably won in consecutive years by Nottingham Forest was all about. The chances of a club such as Forest being successful in the current set-up of the competition are non-existent.
The situation in the Champions League is in danger of becoming similar to World Cup qualifiers where there is usually at least one team in every group who are there to make up the numbers rather than to add an element of competition to the proceedings. There are already three qualifying rounds to get into the Champions League, however that does not eradicate all those teams who have no chance of causing upsets and progressing in the tournament.
A solution is hard to come by without making the elite stronger, and the remainder ultimately becoming weaker. However, the Champions League has only been won by one club not playing in either England, Spain, Italy or Germany in the last 14 years, and that was Porto in 2004. Indeed the runners-up in each of these years have come from one of these countries, with the exception of Ajax in 1996 and Monaco in 2004.
If UEFA want to protect their premier competition and prevent a European League being created, maybe it is time to make the Champions League for the elite, with only 16 teams being entered into the group stage and the round of 16 being removed. Competition would be increased and matches such as Arsenal vs. Olympiakos and Liverpool vs. Debrecen would become a thing of the past. It would also ensure that the domestic game would be protected and could continue to run along the premier European club competition.