F365’s Early Losers: The romantics and group-stage excitement

Dave Tickner

Real Madrid and Inter are doing sterling work in Group B, but the remaining two matchdays in Groups E-H are already looking like a moribund affair.

For neutrals, the only source of excitement beyond the now standard fun of watching whatever latest nonsense Erling Haaland has in store will be deciding whether you prefer petrodollars or energy drink coin.

Because really, PSG and RB Leipzig battling it out to join Manchester United (probably, United could yet balls it up and, with this United, it would be foolish to entirely rule it out) in the last 16 is all that’s left to decide in this half of the group stage.

That group always had the look of three going into two. It was just a question of what would give. The other groups had more obvious frontrunners, and all are playing out entirely as expected. Barcelona and Juventus are already through in their group. Chelsea and Sevilla are over the line in theirs. Dortmund and Lazio are almost there.

We shouldn’t really grumble too much. The Champions League has certainly been more unpredictable and a lot more fun in recent years. And we should remember that Tottenham’s insane freewheeling run to the final two years ago began by somehow Houdini-ing their way out of a group that looked done and dusted with a couple of games to go.

But still. Is it wrong to want a bit more from the group stage of the biggest football competition on earth? Four of the eight qualifiers from this half are already cut and dried with a third of the matches still to play. Three more teams are on the brink.

At the other end of the tables there are still five teams without a single win, and two of those may continue their European campaign into next year without getting one. If Krasnodar and Rennes draw next week, there is a very real chance one of them will get in to the Europa with two points. The same looks likely of Ferencvaros’ matchday six clash with Dynamo Kiev.

And it’s not even as if these European superpowers who are just easing through this group stage are in supreme all-conquering form. Juventus are sixth in Serie A, seven points off the pace. Barcelona are 13th in La Liga, and Sevilla seventh. Manchester United are mid-table title contenders in the Premier League.

The Champions League shouldn’t be respite from tougher domestic assignments, yet that’s what it has been for too many of the big beasts.