Tuesday 29 September ~
Since introducing mini-leagues to replace the quarter-finals in 1991 and rebranding it the Champions League a year later, UEFA has tinkered endlessly with its premier club competition. Like an indecisive householder rearranging the front-room furniture, the suits in Switzerland have shifted group phases here and amended entry criteria there, changing beyond recognition a tournament that had gone untouched for the first 37 years of its existence.
Though an admission of the revamped competition’s inherent flaws and imbalances, recent alterations have sought to make it more democratic, from the welcome demise of the turgid double group phase to the advent of the Champions Path. After all, without that catchily titled innovation, the likes of Debrecen and FC Zurich would probably not have the opportunity to prop up two of the sections in the hallowed territory of the group stage. Add to this the threat to exclude debt-ridden clubs in future years and there seems to be some intent on UEFA’s part to signal a return to the competition’s more egalitarian roots.
But with Europe’s major clubs wielding as big a stick as ever despite the metamorphosis of the G-14 into the more “representative” European Clubs Association, UEFA’s scope for creating a less steeply inclined Champions League playing field is reduced, assuming there is a genuine willingness to achieve that goal in the first place.
For those who would like to a see a reorganisation of European club competitions along something approaching pre-1992 lines, perhaps the likeliest catalyst for change is the predictability threatening to undermine the Champions League in its current guise. Barring unlikely disasters, England’s Gang of Four will barge their way into the last 16 and given UEFA’s arbitrary insistence that clubs from the same association cannot be drawn against each other until the quarter-finals, the chances of the Premier League quartet laying their towels down in the last eight for the third year running are high.
Compare that statistic with the 1992-93 last-eight line-up of AC Milan, Porto, PSV, Gothenburg, Rangers, Club Brugge, CSKA Moscow and Marseille and the charge that lucrative TV rights, bloated appearance payments and the competition’s self-perpetuating seeding system have created a blandly homogenous “product” is hard to deny.
How long continental TV audiences are likely to continue tuning in for the same old, same old remains to be seen, but a resurgence of the viewer fatigue that did for the unlamented double group phase might just force UEFA’s hand. When the ECA and UEFA’s Club Competitions Committee sit down to discuss possible format changes for the 2012-13 season onwards they could do worse than abolish seeding for the group phase and the stipulation that keeps clubs from the same country away from each other until the latter stages.
The continent’s fat cats might not welcome such innovations but big-name first-round collisions were an integral part of the old competition’s lore. And though a group featuring a clutch of central and eastern European champions might not set many televisual pulses racing, the possible sight of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal expending their energy reserves on an autumnal Anglo-Saxon group of death would be too good to miss. James Calder