As the Champions League kicked off this season, there were calls from some quarters for the tournament to be re-formatted. Teams including Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona ran out very easy winners in their games and some have argued that for the lesser clubs there is almost no point turning up. Harry Redknapp was those to criticize the competitions current format, as his charges made their Champions League debut, Redknapp stated,
“For most teams involved, it is going through the motions. The system of seeding makes sure there are few, if any, upsets so the big names more often than not make it through to the last 16 in February when things finally get interesting.”
For Redknapp and others, the Champions League group stage is seen as lacking excitement, but this should not be always be seen as the prime consideration of a football tournament, and in my view, the Champions League format is fine as it is.
People may have seen Arsenal versus Braga for instance as a complete mismatch, and indeed that is how the game unfolded, but it should not be forgotten that Braga had knocked out Sevilla in the final qualifying round, no mean feat when you consider the Spanish outfit’s form in Europe over the past few years. Braga and other clubs of their ilk have earned the right to take part in the biggest club tournament in world football, and although they might get beaten heavily, that is immaterial.
It is not true either that the group stage is completely lacking in excitement, or that teams are simply going through the motions. When Steven Gerrard scored that last minute screamer in 2004 against Olympiakos to get them through to the second round, there was far from a lack of excitement. Last years tournament saw some big shocks in the group stage, previously unheard of Russian side Rubin Kazan secured a sensational away win at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, an achievement that any club would be proud of. European heavyweights Liverpool also saw their Champions League dreams crash and burn in the group stage, with both Lyon and Fiorentina inflicting defeats upon them.
One argument is that the Champions League should be reformed into a straight two-legged knock out round, and be done with the group stage altogether. However this makes the tournament much more of a lottery, one bad game at the start of the campaign could end any chance of Champions League success, and to me this is not the best way of doing things. The prestige and importance of the Champions League means that teams should have a chance to atone for errors, and the current format allows this to happen.
Although entertainment should always be a consideration of football’s governing bodies, fairness should also be in the forefront of the lawmakers minds. If excitement was the only concern, teams from less fancied nations would never get a chance to play in the competition, and this would certainly be a bad thing. For teams like Braga and MSK Zilina, playing clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea is the stuff of dreams for their players and their fans, and this should not be taken away from them. The Champions League may suffer from a bit of predictability in the group stage, but the format is fundamentally a good one and in my opinion, there is no need to change what has been a winning formula.