Richard Smith believes the Champions League just got tougher.
This season’s Champions League has a very different feel to that of previous years; the dominance of an elite group of teams seems to have come to halt and for the first time, the 16 teams heading to the knockout stages in the new year is set to include a few new names.
With just one game remaining of the group stages, half of the 32 teams are set to leave competition when the final round of matches are played in early December. The biggest casualty so far is Liverpool, who despite a home game against Fiorentina cannot progress to the last 16 for the first time in seven years, during which time Rafa Benitez’s side won the competition in 2005 and were been beaten finalists in 2007.
The fact that only two of the 32 teams (Maccabi Haifa and Debrecen) remain pointless after fives games and no team boasts 100% record, goes someway to highlighting how competitive the Champions League has become. One needs to look no further than Besiktas’s 1-0 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford on match day five, bringing an end to the Reds record 23 games unbeaten at home in the competition to an end.
The only teams assured of Champions League football in the New Year are Bordeaux, Man Utd, Chelsea, Porto, Fiorentina, Lyon, Barcelona, Sevilla and Arsenal. However, it is the teams who will be joining Liverpool who raise an eyebrow. They include one of either Juventus or Bayern Munich, who face-off in a winner takes all game at the Stadio Delle Alpi in the final game and Atletico Madrid, who are already eliminated. Whilst none of AC Milan, Inter Milan and Real Madrid are safe and defeat in the final round of matches could spell disaster for any of these European Heavyweights.
When it comes to the Quarter Finals, we are likely to see the usual suspects feature and the Champions League Odds suggest as much. However, what the results of the group stages prove is that Europe’s premier club competition is no longer a walkover for any team and if any of the ‘Big Guns’ fail to perform there is a host of improving teams waiting to take advantage with Liverpool’s plight providing the perfect example.
It maybe that Uefa think got the seeding wrong ahead of this season’s group draw and that next season, we may see changes that ensure that the teams who command the biggest commercial potential in the knock out stages, such as Liverpool, are given an easier ride but surely the proverbial ‘bigger teams’ should be able beat all teams put in their way? Obviously not, which suggest that the Champions League just got tougher!