The Champions League group stage began in earnest a few weeks ago and the predictable merry go round maintained it’s course, as it will do until mid December. Long gone are the days of European Cup dramas early on in the competition. Some of the most exciting games in the history of the sport have been incited by the fear and the glory of a knockout round. Any shocks witnessed in the group stages are rendered insignificant by the smoothing process that occurs over the 6 games, as it should. This is sadly not the most exciting prospect for the armchair fan, where the best one can hope for is Chelsea to struggle to a 0-0 draw deep in the eastern bloc.
Lack of surprises has left many calling for a reinstatement of the old European cup format. A return to the 2 legged knockout ties could mean the possibility of banana skins being slipped on early in the campaign. At the moment we can comfortably predict 12/16 2nd round competitors already based on their accounts alone. Knockout rounds could introduce enough uncertainty to freshen up the early stages of the competition. I agree with this view in part, an alternative to the purely knockout format that could appease the accountants is a format that was used in the first couple of editions of the tournament.
Hold 2 knockout rounds between the same 32 entrants, qualification should remain the same, this can be seeded if the powers that be decide the big sides need to be given some insurance. This will reduce the competitors to 8, who will be drawn into 2 groups of 4. A single or double round robin will then be used to determine semi finalists.
The advantages of such a system are that the better teams will have to play against at least half of the best teams in Europe, thereby earning the right to be crowned champions of Europe. We are far more likely to be treated to matches between the 2 sides perceived to be the best on the continent. E.g. Spain vs Brazil
No plan would be complete without the obligatory flaws though. The fact is the current format generates an enormous amount of funding from TV rights across the continent. The funding has been distributed very well over the last few seasons and Monsieur Platini’s changes to entry for non champions has fostered further interest in eastern bloc minnows who have made it to the group stages. We may miss out on the likes of Cluj and Rubin Kazan making life tough for some.
It is also worth remembering that the past is often seen with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia. There have been some magnificent finals over the history of the European cup and Champions League but there are also all the games which are lost in the darkest depths of dire uninteresting quasi-stalemates. There is no guarantee that if Barcelona were to face Man Utd, Bayern and Porto that the games would resemble anything vaguely exciting.
So maybe what I’m saying is that while the current format has its caveats, there are many more positives than negatives taking into account the current European footballing landscape.