UCL super clashes mask the inadequacy of the group stage

The UEFA Champions League knockout draw once again threw up some mouth-watering clashes with Arsenal v Barcelona, PSG v Chelsea and Juventus v Bayern Munich all having the potential to be memorable contests.

UCL Trophy Draw

The UEFA Champions League trophy is displayed at the draw for the Round of 16 at UEFA headquarters in Nyon Source: Getty Images

They could turn out to be just as special as other knockout UCL matches of recent seasons, like the famous Barcelona v Chelsea semi-final duels, the ‘el clasico semi-finals’, PSG’s late dumping of Chelsea or last season’s classic encounters between Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

The issue for the Champions League is that it’s taken six months to produce contests that most would regard as ‘unmissable’.

Sure the group stage did throw up PSG v Real Madrid or Bayern Munich v Arsenal, but aside from the first Gunners meeting with the German champions, there was relatively much less at stake than there is in the knockout stages.

PSG failed to defeat Real Madrid in the group stage and while that cost them top spot in the group, those two matches are unlikely to be remembered in future years.

This is because the unseeded teams in the group stage are, for the most part, unable to match the financial might of the big clubs from the big five leagues of Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France.

This gap continues to widen as the revenue for these clubs continue to rise and that has led a disproportionate results on the football pitch.

Scores like 8-0, 6-1, 5-0 and 4-0 should be quite rare in what is the European football’s premier competition, but happened too frequently this season.

It’s important to remember that this is a competition reserved for Europe’s very best and in the years before the broadcast revenue explosion, that was mostly the champion of the major European countries.

Of course today the European football landscape is unrecognisable to that when clubs like Steaua Bucahrest (1986) and Red Star Belgrade (1991) could win the famous ‘big ears’.

In an attempt to provide greater opportunities for the likes of Steaua and Red Star, as well tie up votes from Eastern Europe in the UEFA President election, Michel Platini introduced the ‘champions’ path.

As with other initiatives, like financial fair play, it appears an attempt to equalise the gross inequality of European football. Yet closer inspection demonstrates that it does nothing of the sort.

The justification is that playing in the Champions League will strengthen these clubs’ finances over time and eventually allow them to compete with the giants.

But as long as Champions League revenue is partly divided in the clubs outside the top five leagues don’t stand a chance of becoming competitive. 

Just to highlight a couple of examples from last season’s competition, Athletic Bilbao finished third in the group yet still received more revenue than second-placed Shakhtar Donetsk, while Liverpool received nearly double that of Basel, who qualified from the group stage ahead of the Reds.

Despite this great inequality, there has been little reported complaint from clubs outside the top leagues. That could be because the revenue from UEFA Champions League has allowed them to dominate domestically by creating further inequality in their respective leagues.

The ultimate loser in this situation is the football fan, which is deprived of more regular top-quality competitive football, yet has to pay increasing subscription fees to watch.

Yet there’s no easy answer to the problem of Champions League group stage competitiveness.

Equalising the revenue distribution may help make the clubs outside the top five more competitive but is it enough for them to truly challenge. How would the top clubs take to having their revenues slashed?

It should be noted the current system is in place as a reaction to the threat of a European Super League.

An alternative would be to abolish the ‘champion’s route’ or allow entry to more clubs from the top five. That would almost certainly improve competitiveness, but those outside the top five would be hit extremely hard.

The easiest solution is to continue as is but how long will it be before football fans start switching off from the group stage of the Champions League and wait for the real contests to begin at the knockout stage?

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Published 16 December 2015 at 1:14pm
By Vitor Sobral