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Opinion: Dull Champions League group stage needs overhaul

December 11, 2018

As the final matchday of the 2018-19 Champions League group stage approaches, less than half of the groups have any genuine tension. With top-seeded teams almost guaranteed progress, is it time for an overhaul?

Champions League Final - Real Madrid v Liverpool - Ronaldo
Image: Reuters/H. McKay

Of the 16 games that make up the final group stage round of the most hyped, most lucrative and most prestigious club football tournament in the world, only five really matter. 

By the end of matchday five, 12 of the 16 knockout berths were sewn up, leaving Group C (Liverpool, Napoli, Paris-Saint Germain) as the only one where both spots are still open. In Group B, Spurs and Inter Milan are competing for second. By Wednesday, the only intrigue will surround whether Shakhtar Donetsk or Lyon will join Manchester City in escaping Group F. Slim pickings.

DW's Matt Pearson
DW's Matt Pearson

Naturally, those that haven't yet confirmed top spot will insist they have plenty to play for but, in reality, the difference between first and second often proves marginal, sometimes even non-existent.

Look at the statistics and it's hard to escape the conclusion that this lack of jeopardy is a result of a system designed to keep the biggest and richest clubs alive for as long as possible.

Of the 12 clubs already qualified for the last 16 this season, only two are from outside the first two pots in UEFA's seeding system (Schalke and Ajax). Only one of the Pot 1 teams is out, Lokomotiv Moscow, while PSG could make it two with an unlikely slip-up to Red Star Belgrade.

Schalke are one of only two outsiders to have qualified for the knockouts
Schalke are one of only two outsiders to have qualified for the knockouts Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

Once again, no teams from Pot 4 will qualify, with the possible exception of Inter, and it's certain that at least 12, and possibly up to 14, of the 16 sides in Pots 1 and 2 will make up the first knockout stage. Any giants that do fail have the safety net of the Europa League providing they don't finish bottom, a system that casts a shadow over the integrity of that competition.

Familiar patterns

Those numbers broadly correlate with UEFA's own analysis of their flagship competition. Ahead of the 2016-17 season, they found that, on average, 87 per cent of Pot 1 teams qualified, 64 per cent from Pot 2, 30 per cent from Pot 3 and just 20 per cent from Pot 4. In other words, groups - and therefore matches - are exactly as you'd expect in the vast majority of cases

UEFA's Nations League proved that a system designed to both reward success and punish failure can throw up unlikely stories (Germany's relegation, Kosovo winning their group, the surprising final four) and tight, dramatic finishes in games where everything is at stake. But the organization shows no sign of following its own lead.

That's probably because it has no intention of slaying the goose that keeps laying golden eggs. Clearly the Champions League makes more money with the big names going as deep into the competition as possible, so UEFA have an incentive to ensure those teams get through, or at least get a second bite of the European cherry.

Atletico Marid won the 2018 Europa League after failing in the Champions League
Atletico Marid won the 2018 Europa League after failing in the Champions LeagueImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Ena

In fairness to UEFA, the change in 2015-16 that saw Pot 1 not decided by coefficients but instead consist of the champions of the seven top-ranked nations and the holders was a small step away from the self-fulfilling prophecy of coeffecients (have money, do well domestically, get easy European group, qualify for knockouts, pick up more coefficient points, get more money, repeat). But it's not enough. 

Little incentive for change

The last ten years have seen five teams win the competition, with both Real Madrid and Barcelona picking up multiple victories. In the 10 years before the Champions League replaced the European Cup (group stages were introduced in the season before the Champions League) there were nine different winners, with only Arrigo Sacchi's great AC Milan team of the late eighties and early nineties winning multiple tournaments. And even then, only two.

It seems that as long as that goose keeps laying, there is no desire to ruffle its feathers. While for those who value true competition, shocks and new faces, the same cabal of clubs strolling through the group stages becomes tiresome, for others it's all about the glory of the club they've attached themselves to and the familiar clashes of European titans.

Perhaps a return to the straight knockout form of old is too much to hope for in the Champions League, after all there's more money in six games than two, but the Europa League would certainly benefit from a format change - even if the draw were seeded. 

As guardians of the European game, UEFA should have the interests of the sport, and not the continent's biggest clubs, in mind. Alexander Ceferin, who has taken some positive steps in his time as president, has announced that rather than addressing the faults in their current European club competitions, he's going to start a new one. He should think again.