22 November ~ It has been three weeks since the last round of Champions League games. Did you miss it? Or did you forget about it completely? So completely, in fact, that you had to check how many more rounds of games we had to get through until the league phase is over and we reach the grand Champions League Knockout Cup Phase. So completely that you weren’t even sure what teams are in which group, or what the scores had been so far. Looking at the scoreline Arsenal 0 Marseille 0 from earlier this month, I know for a fact that I watched some of that game. But until I checked, I couldn’t have sworn that it ever took place.

As a kid, I had a great aunt who recounted in intricate detail several stories from her youth some 60 years earlier. She was so keen on these stories that she told them to me again and again. But she couldn’t always remember my name. Or that half an hour earlier, she had already given me a crisp Scottish five pound note. It would have been the height of bad manners to point out that she had done the same thing twice. The Champions League is starting to make me feel like my great aunt. I can’t remember last month, let alone last season. Or even much about the ten seasons before.

Luckily, there’s not much to surprise us when we get around to checking the state of this year’s competition. That is, everything’s going pretty much according to plan. All the teams that are expected to qualify for the last 16 will qualify for the last 16. Do these names ring any bells? Real Madrid, Barcelona, the Milano brothers, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Manchester City is a new name here, of course, but with all that liquidity they feel like they’ve been hanging around in the Champions League gaff for years. They’ve settled right in. They are our kind of people, as another relative – this time a working class girl made wealthy – said of the other rich people who made up her latter-day circle of friends.

There are a handful of other minor surprise teams, like Apoel Nicosia, that will likely be knocked out in the last 16. Then we can all settle down for the Big Games in the final eight, featuring pretty much the same teams as last year and the few years before that too. It’s not original to point this out, but if we don’t continue to moan about such things, the tide of historical inevitability will see us lie down and drown like a Slovakian club’s back four, transfixed by the glamour of the giants that came to town for a single night when the fans were conned into paying five times the normal ticket price.

Then there will be someone in the comments section below who points out that Porto won the Champions League in 2004, so it is not as predictable as I’m making out. Maybe an argument will be made post-match for the technical excellence of Barcelona versus Milan, both already miles ahead and all but qualified in Group H. Perhaps a team like José Mourinho’s Inter two seasons ago will find a way to negate Barcelona. Tactically fascinating if you like that kind of thing, but painful to watch and an evolutionary step back for the game as a whole.

Nothing we see in round five or round six will counter the fact that a competition relentlessly billed as the world’s best at club level, featuring the game’s most highly regarded elite players, spends much of the year dragging itself through weeks of extraneous tedium just to reach pretty much the same annual result. The business model demands it. It no longer matters that there are way too many games, and that almost all of them are forgettable, even the better ones. Or that surprise results are factored in to have no effect on the overall competition.

All that matters is the continued generation of revenue, mostly in an upward direction. But you have to credit UEFA for being able to sell us the same bloated, muddy hog, smeared in lipstick, year after year after year. Now sit down, child, and let me tell you how back in 1976 I followed Liverpool’s path to the European Cup final with the aid of a small transistor radio held to my ear under the bed covers… Oh, what do you mean I’ve told you that one before? Ian Plenderleith

Comments (27)
Comment by geobra 2011-11-22 11:05:17

Excellent article. But let's not jump the gun with Manchester City. If they lose in Naples this evening, which they well might, their chances of qualifying will be very slim. They'll then be condemned to the unloved Europa League, though I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that rewarding European failure with continued European participation is another UEFA monstrosity.

Comment by drew_whitworth 2011-11-22 11:28:18

Just don't watch them Ian. I don't, and I can't say I miss it. The last time I took any interest in CL/Europa league football was for Fulham a couple of seasons ago.

Unfortunately it will probably get worse before it gets better. The sport I grew up with is slowly being killed, or forcibly mutated into something I cannot identify with - and what's perhaps worse is, I find it increasingly hard to care that much. I still like going to a match; but at the top levels? Forget it. Which I do, most of the time.

Comment by Mr Beast 2011-11-22 11:38:27

Just thank God there is no longer a second group stage.

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2011-11-22 11:38:51

All of which just thrills the owners of those handful of clubs; unexpected success for a smaller team might mean losing out on a few bob, which just won't do.

Anyway, do you know what really bothers me? How often I hear people (kids) saying that football in the 70s must have been, because Bruges and St. Etienne were doing better than Real or Barcelona - because it's impossible to conceive of European football being open or competitive any more.

Shame. Give me interesting football over one or two exceptional teams any day.

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2011-11-22 11:39:32

Ahem. Football in the 70s must have been easy, because...

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-22 11:45:44

Sorry to be a pendant Ian but 'Slovak club's back four' would be considerably better. Given what you say in the article, I take it you don't actually recall Zilina's 0-7 home stuffing by Marseille last year. I do, because I was there for every painful minute. It could have been 0-10 or worse, and then perhaps you too would have remembered. As it was, it set a record for biggest ever Champions League away win, so the Slovakia reference seems totally appropriate, even if inadvertently. But 'biggest ever Champions League away win'? Another case there of football not existing before the Premier League/Champions League were invented, I think.

Grammatical touchiness aside, it's a great article - wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments.

Comment by JimDavis 2011-11-22 13:26:34

The give away is in the fact the big teams are using this part of the Champions league, a bit like England's 1eague cup, to blood players not yet good enough for regular league football.

Comment by wittoner 2011-11-22 13:35:12

Porto won the champions league in 2004 so it's not as predictable as you're making out.

Comment by imp 2011-11-22 13:53:10

James, never mind the Slovaks, what about the fact I got the year of Liverpool's first European Cup win wrong? 1977, of course. Tsk, forgetfulness. Perhaps I made that error deliberately. I can't recall. Ian

Comment by Admin5 2011-11-22 14:58:52

But you would've started to follow the path in 76, so we left it cos we thought that's what you meant.

Comment by Coral 2011-11-22 15:07:19

Liverpool won the champions league in 2005 so it's not as predictable as you're making out

Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2011-11-22 15:36:21

"the tide of historical inevitability will see us lie down and drown like a Slovakian club’s back four, transfixed by the glamour of the giants that came to town for a single night when the fans were conned into paying five times the normal ticket price."

I need this set to music. These are lyrics.

Outstanding as always.

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-11-22 16:51:32

Agreed, Imp. There are too many teams in the Champions League, and far too many meaningless, instantly forgettable matches. Boring, boring, BORING. Somebody wake me up when we get to the last eight.

Obviously I am not alone in moaning about the bloated borefest that the Champions League has become. However, unlike many of those who moan, I'm within my rights to do so. I'm allowed to complain about the Champions League being a bloated borefest, because none of it is my fault. I don't contribute to the root cause. What makes me say that? Well, I have never in my life paid to watch a Champions League game on TV. It's a matter of principle. Basically, Murdoch has never got his grubby paws on one single penny of mine. And he never will.

If only all football fans were as principled as me, eh?

Comment by jonmid 2011-11-22 16:56:48

what about the ones on ITV?

Comment by imp 2011-11-22 16:58:08

@Admin5 - ahem, yes, exactly what I meant.

@Paul, I salute you. Unfortunately I cannot say the same thing, though I can justify it on my tax write-offs as something done in the interests of background research so I can write grumpy articles about the Champions League.

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-22 18:27:15

'James, never mind the Slovaks, what about the fact I got the year of Liverpool's first European Cup win wrong?'

My pedantry is reserved exclusively for Slovakia-related matters. Over-protectiveness towards an adopted home, I guess. And they'd cope without it.

Still, Liverpool's and Forest's 77-80 campaigns meant loads more to me too, even though the final opponents were (unbelievably it seems now) Monchengladbach, Bruges, Malmo and Hamburg. Recall much about the games even now. Brilliant as Barca were at Wembley in May, I'll have forgotten the essential moments long before next year's final comes round. Guess we've got to face it - it's an age thing.

Comment by sw2boro 2011-11-22 20:10:11

I knew this piece would have been by Ian as soon as I saw the title.

But he's quite correct - I may show some interest in the final group games if there's s chance one of the English clubs could go out, and I'll watch the semis & the final, but the whole thing just doesn't seem as vital as it used to.

And I'm not sure it's age, 'cos I still find going to watch the Boro as life-affirming as ever.

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-22 20:37:35

'And I'm not sure it's age, 'cos I still find going to watch the Boro as life-affirming as ever.'

Sure - they're your team and I can imagine that whatever they achieve next, especially if it's under Mowbray will mean even more given the hard times they've been through recently. At least that's how I'd feel.

What I meant was that the real big-time stuff (hope that's not disrespectful to Boro') has less and less impact the older you get. And the fact there's so damn much of it on TV makes you forget it all so much faster - as Ian says. In fact, I basically tuned out of Napoli-City to go back to this thread. Nothing - absolutely nothing - would have distracted me from a big European tie when I was an impressionable young kid.

Comment by sw2boro 2011-11-22 21:19:27

But that's kind of the point though, jameswba - it's not a big European tie, because the Champions League has devalued European ties - they're too commonplace, except for of course they're not, because the only big ones are when you get down to the last eight of so, and there's such an emptiness about it all now because it's in such a large part a big fix - and one that means the outside chance of our clubs emulating Forest - and we're both fans of clubs that are basically in the same bracket as them - could now never be anything more than fantasy, where once it was an outlandish, but achievable aim.
But yeah, maybe age a little.

Comment by Lincoln 2011-11-23 09:35:48

Still good games to watch though I find. I enjoy watching the best teams from some of the best leagues playing each other. Yeah it takes time, but then the Premiership is equally as predictable and there are not many advocates of changing that into the FA cup and dispensing with the lengthy process of the league where we play 38 games and eventually one of 4 teams wins.

Some have bemoaned the fact there are too many games, don't watch them. I love watching European football and the fact there are more games is great.

Comment by SoccerLimey 2011-11-23 21:39:28

In my humble opinion, I think this latest round of matches have far exceeded expectations as many teams at this stage have already qualified. What has become apparent to me, certainly in the last few days, is that no English club is currently in the Top 5 in Europe.

My Top 5 is : 1.Barcelona 2.Real Madrid 3.Bayern Munich 4.AC Milan 5.Benfica.

All of those teams I think could beat any of the English clubs.

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-24 10:58:38

On second thoughts, the last round of group stage matches will be jolly good fun if Man City, Man Utd and Chelsea all bow out. All of a sudden, I find I'm looking forward....

Comment by Coral 2011-11-24 14:15:18

And "cluesless" Wenger gets into the next round for the 12th successive season, despite the not too insignificant hinderance of having apparently "lost the plot".

If all 3 of those go out it would be great fun, would just have to avoid most forms of media for a year or so while the debate begins as to why England has fallen behind the rest of Europe and is it related to there not being as many English players as there once were and too many Glaswegian managers.

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-24 16:44:41

@sw2boro, seriously off-topic now but I've been following Boro a bit more since Mowbray's appointment. This, however, has established them very firmly in my affections :

Comment by Coral 2011-11-24 17:37:12

jameswba, ditto on that. I hadn't heard of the condition before butsounds horrific. It is fantastic that they have worked out a way to keep him working and an inspiration for others hopefully

Comment by jameswba 2011-11-24 21:34:13

Yes, it's the most genuinely moving football story I've read for ages.

You were right about the English media and the Champions League btw. The 'Chelsea/United/City in crisis articles' will be on their way again, if they're not already.

Comment by Alex Anderson 2011-11-25 11:23:51

Porto won it in 1987 too. I remember that. But it wasn't "The Champions League" back then ... oh no, no, noooeeeew ... and because there were no English clubs in it that season we didn't even get to see the final live on telly! But then Napoli drew Real Madrid in the first round and that was that - everyone in suits had had enough. Cup competition gone; American franchise, conference, play/off, best-of-seven-games format brought in.

Yeah, the modern European Cup definitely does scientifically establish beyond all doubt which is the best team in Europe on every season-long front - no more Steaua Bucharests winning it by beating an unknown Danish team in the first round, a Hungarian mob in the 2nd, a Finnish team in the quarters and then doing a history-haunted Barca on pens in the final after your one truly decent win, against Andrlecht, in the semis. But there's little doubt it has killed stone dead that buzz the "neutral" observer once felt when, say, Man U-Bayern was on the telly. Seen that pairing more often in the last 19 years than ... well more often than everything except fu**ing Chelsea-Liverpool (Jeezus - it was good the first ten times but ...)!

Don't get me wrong, I'm a whore for the UCL - my mob have the same Freudian fixation for that trophy which killed Barca in Seville against Steauau in 1986 - but when you're more excited about seeing Peterhead and East Stirling at Ibrox for the first time in your life than VfB bloody Stuttgart - AGAIN??!! - something's jist noh rite.

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