Anyone who sat through what Manchester United and Rangers served up on Tuesday, firstly deserves a medal, but secondly may have considered that the current Champions League format simply isn’t conducive to exciting football. Big clubs will do what they always do when they believe their opponents are weaker, and rest players for seemingly more important games. As a result, there has been a call for the tournament to revert to the classical knock-out format from the start.
Firstly, we must congratulate Rangers. Even though Sir Alex Ferguson rang the changes, he would still have believed that his side had the beating of his Scottish opponents. Rangers did what was required of them, and left Old Trafford with their dignity to accompany their hard earned point. Deep down, United will have known that they still have five games to ensure their expected qualification, so the result will not be considered a disaster, particularly with Liverpool in mind.
There is a perception that the group stage is simply the starter. It eases us in to the competition,the under card that keeps us waiting till we see the heavyweights trade blows with each other. A tournament with the historical romance associated with the FA Cup, with the best clubs in the continent competing, is the idyllic alternative. With a straight knock-out format from the start – it would still have to be over two legs – there would be no casual complacency and teams would have to set out to win each and every tie.
I personally have an issue with this. What happens in two-legged ties is that teams become incredibly fearful of making mistakes. Games can become nervy, frigid affairs, with an emphasis on protection, rather than invention. The room for error afforded by the group stage means that games are less restricted, freer ties, where a one-off mistake isn’t the be all and end all of a season. Rangers will be buoyed by the fact that they went toe to toe with one of the competition’s contenders, and will be filled with self-belief. United know that they will have to go and up their game, and get back to winning ways.
The competition is already split into both group and knock-out ties, and as a result, means that a team requires a balance of tactics, and types and styles of performance to go all the way. Naivety will be shown up during the group if the right game plans aren’t carried out in practice.
There is also the argument that the group stage is simply a financial procession for the big clubs to regularly pick up their hefty pay cheques. This is one side of the coin; the flip is that it gives newer teams six games at the very least in the greatest club competition in the world. As soon as Spurs made through their tie with Young Boys, they knew they had at least that amount of games, with trips to Werder Bremen and Inter to enjoy. Having worked for an entire year to reach the competition, a team in Spurs’ position, and the fans that they have, should be rewarded with a fair return for their efforts.
Had Tuesday’s goalless draw been the first leg of a two-tie match, there would have been little difference in the way in which the game was played. Perhaps Ferguson would have fielded a slightly stronger eleven, but he would still have the visit of Roy Hodgson’s men in mind – a match he would still consider more difficult. It is simply a case of managers going through their fixture list and prioritising each game at a time, with the following one in mind. Rangers would have played in exactly the same fashion, as is their right to do so.
I love the Champions League. And sometimes it can be easy to criticise, rather than enjoy what we are being given. Arsenal’s game against Braga wasn’t a million miles away from the United-Rangers tie in terms of the teams on show. The teams may be more closely balanced, but Arsenal remained clear pre-match favourites, and they simply blew Braga away. Braga didn’t get men behind the ball in the way Walter Smith’s team did, but let’s not pretend that the entire competition is mundane based on a couple of results.
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