The Champions League (and therefore UEFA) has a huge problem on its hands. Football’s inability or unwillingness to stop the process whereby the rich get richer and the poor at best stay the same has virtually negated the use of the Champions League group stage as a competitive entity. There may still be intrigue in an individual game, but across six matches the two best teams (if not necessarily the two top seeds) are almost certain to qualify.
If you assume that that has always been the case, the problem is certainly becoming exacerbated. The change in seeding process to give priority access to league champions was a move for equality, but has harmed the group stage as a concept. It is now increasingly common to have two behemoths in the same group (Barcelona vs Juventus and Paris St Germain vs Bayern Munich this year alone), which leaves little room for upset elsewhere.
The other result is that teams are now not as worried about finishing top of their group. Think about it for a second. If you are an elite manager and are rightly confident of progression whatever the weather, is it worth pushing your team to 100% in their six group games, or is it better to allow them to ease off until the knock-out stages and back them to beat any team you might face?
The perfect example is Real Madrid last season; they drew both their group games against Dortmund and also dropped points against Legia Warsaw. They finished eight points ahead of third place without ever getting out of third gear, finished second and then proceeded to score 20 times in seven knock-out matches including a 4-1 dismantling of Juventus in the final.
Given the gap between the haves and have nots, the Champions League group stage has effectively become a 24-team process with eight teams making up the numbers. The total number of points gained by bottom place in each group has been steadily decreasing:
2001/02 – 30
2006/07 – 28
2011/12 – 20
2016/17 – 18
More worrying still for the hope of meaningful competition is that the total number of points gained by positions three and four in the group (and therefore the meaningful challenge to the two qualifiers) has also dropped considerably:
2001/02 – 90
2006/07 – 84
2011/12 – 84
2016/17 – 66
What’s more, if elite clubs do stamp their authority, the results are equally uninspiring as financial weaklings are forced to face superpowers. This week, the six pre-season favourites for the Champions League (Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Manchester United and Manchester City) won their six matches by an aggregate score of 21-0. Three of them weren’t even playing the bottom seeds in the group.
Unfortunately, all this evidence points to a lowering of interest amongst the general public, accelerated by the lack of matches on free-to-air television (and I’m not counting BT Showcase HD as no bugger seems to know about it). Out of sight, out of mind.
I love football enough to gorge upon it in any and every form, and there are plenty like me, but it’s easy to see why those closer to the periphery might be losing interest in the Champions League group stage. If your life circumstances force you to pick two or three matches a week to watch, would you really waste them on games where you’re virtually sure of the ending?
The Champions League is a competition that increasingly feels like going through the motions until February. A 125-game tournament has been reduced to 29, with a 96-game pre-qualification stage that can be watched with one ear and one eye open. This is a tournament in hibernation through autumn and winter until the green shoots of spring finally appear.