Blog: Are the Champions League group stages moribund?

Today might seem like a strange time to write about the convoluted nature of the Champions League’s group stages, following on the back of two wonderful fixtures between Tottenham and Inter. Without the group stage format, we would not have been able to witness a grand club with great tradition finally being given the chance to take on Europe’s premier club side with refreshing fearlessness and attacking verve. Nor would we have been able to see the coronation of Gareth Bale as one of Europe’s finest young talents.

The problem is that the two aforementioned matches are somewhat of an anomaly. The other English club involved in Champions League action yesterday treat the competition with disdain only usually reserved for early round Carling Cup fixtures. Notching for Manchester United in an anodyne 3-0 victory over Bursaspor were such luminaries as Bebe and Gabriel Obertan – nowhere to be seen when the season reaches its climax and matches’ importance become more pronounced. The victory also meant Manchester United have qualified with two games to spare. More of the same moribund fixtures can be expected.

This is not to say that teams such as Bursaspor should not play in the same competition as Manchester United. As Turkish champions, they have earned the right to compete at Europe’s highest level. The problem is rather about format and how it leads to a circulation of the same set of teams from the same top European leagues colonising the tournament. As soon as the group stages are drawn, it is easy to predict the whereabouts of the teams who will qualify for the final 16. English, Spanish and Italian teams will dominate. Interspersed between them will be the occasional French, German and Portuguese side. It is rare for clubs east of Berlin to qualify beyond the group stages.

The reason for this is the steady and eventual accumulation of revenue which comes with consistent qualification for the tournament, favouring teams from the leagues with the highest coefficients. Michel Platini has made the most token of gestures to redress this imbalance by ensuring teams from the strongest leagues will face each other in the final qualifying round. Whilst this nudges the gate open for teams from Europe’s peripheral leagues to qualify, it is insufficient to challenge the hegemony of Europe’s biggest sides. They serve as cannon fodder; six big nights for the fans to enjoy, perhaps the occasional goal and point before a hasty retreat. As a result, the group stages become hideously easy to predict, to the detriment of entertainment. Were Arsenal’s annihilations of Shakhtar Donetsk and Braga ever in doubt? Or Chelsea’s eviscerations of Marseille, Spartak Moscow and MSK Zilina?

The Champions League is in a rut. The problem is that the group stages are simply too lucrative to be done away with and the influence of big clubs in the top European leagues too great to restrict the amount of teams qualifying from them each season. As such, we are left waiting until March until the fun starts, and even then we know who the teams involved will be. Fir the good of the tournament things need to change. The paradox is that the needs of the biggest clubs are prioritised over those of the tournament and the rest of Europe as a whole. With the group stage set to remain, the future of the competition, to my eyes anyway, seems bleak.

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