I am not a fan of the current format of the Champions’ League. There, I said it. Look, I understand the logistics of trying to fit in eight two legged knockout ties and the obviously financial importance of the Global TV audience. But, creating a schedule that features 16 different games on eight different match days, spread over five weeks is just bad planning. It dilutes the excitement and breaks up the momentum. Fans want to see the knockout rounds take place in fewer installments, over two pairs of days, just like the regular group stage, with 4 matches on each day. Under the current format, teams play their first legs on Feb 12/13 and then their second legs on March 5/6. For the teams that kick off their ties on Feb 19/20, they don’t play again till March 12/13. Where is the continuity, why make fans wait for so long?
Moreover, even in the knockout stages, there appears to be a glass ceiling forming. There is a division between a set of teams who are always in the running and who will win the tournament one of these years, and another set of consistent also-rans who may get to the latter stages but will never challenge. This is because the former group will simply acquire the best talent from the latter group. As a result, despite being close to the finished product, the teams in the second group will rarely, if ever, get to add the final pieces to their teams and will almost never hold on to their entire rosters, serving instead as high level finishing schools for their up and coming players. It’s not ideal, and FFP or not, there is little that can be done to alleviate this trend. It must get a little frustrating for a team of exciting young talent or a cohesive unit of players, to build on a few years of teamwork and progress, reach the last 16 or eight of the Champions’ League and then get raided by one of the bigger teams.
Focussing on this season’s tournament, the usual suspects remain with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, still smarting from their shock losses, in successive rounds last year, to Chelsea. A deep run beckons for both, assuming they avoid each other in the draw. This column anoints them as the favourites at this point, all the while realising how unoriginal that declaration may be. This column likes to think it’s self aware. With two of the most dangerous teams - a resurgent Real and a revitalised Manchester United - squaring off against each other, it’s a win-win situation for everyone else as one heavyweight will get eliminated before the quarterfinals. Further afield, Barcelona’s seemingly annual set of ties against Milan will showcase just how far the Rossoneri have fallen, while Bayern’s tie against Arsenal, is surely a formality. With Europe’s most consistent qualifier from the Champions League, seemingly in terminal decline, this may be Arsenal’s last appearance in the knockout stages of Europe’s top tournament for a few years.
A neutral’s dream sees Borussia Dortmund and Shakhtar Donetsk play out arguably the most mouth-watering tie in years, as both clubs bring well drilled rosters bursting at the seams with exciting talent and an expansive style of play. No doubt, a summer of potential sales awaits both teams. Elsewhere several other ties showcase the unpredictability and excitement of the tournament with Juventus taking on Celtic; Malaga, financially shackled of late but not unbowed, lining up against Porto; PSG versus Valencia and interestingly Galatasaray playing Schalke. Spain continues its dominance with four teams in the last 16, but Germany, after several lean seasons in Europe, has now provided three. England, who used to come up with four participants in the knockout stages, almost annually, has seen its contribution shrink to just the original big two of Arsenal and Manchester United – both Chelsea and Manchester City didn’t make it past the group stage. Italy returns just two sides and both teams, Milan and Juventus, erstwhile giants of the game, are outside bets, at most, for the trophy. Among the most consistent participants, Porto return to the knockout stages after a few seasons spent dominating the Europa League, while newly minted PSG are building on their new owner’s promise of competing in the Champions’ League. They look to be a fixture at this stage for years to come.
All in all, a very favourable draw for both Barcelona and Bayern, whom many will be hoping to see in the final in May as they are currently Europe’s two best teams. Still, stranger things have happened and nothing is certain; while it is highly unlikely that both teams will get knocked out by Milan and Arsenal respectively, it is possible. So, initial scheduling and parity gripes aside, it’s good to have the Champions’ League back and fans worldwide await the continuation of the best soccer competition in the World.