The end of the Champions League group stage can’t come soon enough as it’s impossible not to feel like this season will be decided quickly, predictably. That’s due to much more than the World Cup dictating this penultimate edition of the format, set to be changed in 2024 and to be completed in the first week of November.
While there are always more upset results than people expect, most superclubs have very forgiving routes to their traditional place in the last 16. Real Madrid, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Liverpool and even Tottenham Hotspur should all do it get through easily.
Group C – featuring Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Internazionale and the return of Robert Lewandowski to Allianz – is the only group that could be described as the old-fashioned ‘group of death’. That the competition used to be full of such challenges is an old point, but that makes it all the more relevant. It looks like it’s never been this bad. No wonder the main intrigue surrounding this week’s Istanbul draw was the middle-tier clubs urging to start recovering the prize money.
That suggests none of this is the fault of the group stage as a format, but rather the financial inequality that Uefa and this very competition have encouraged and monitored.
Even some of the better individual establishments are attractive precisely because they are based on this economic gap.
Erling Haaland returns to Borussia Dortmund but he only left because one of the biggest clubs in Germany and Europe couldn’t live up to its ambitions, a simply remarkable statement when you’re really behind. In previous years, Dortmund’s game against City would have been an exciting match beyond the Norwegian’s return, but does anyone expect anything other than a comfortable win for Pep Guardiola’s side? And that’s Dortmund, with a Champions League against City without.
We don’t even need to talk about Guardiola’s “Holy Grail” at this point, because it doesn’t really matter until February. Likewise, Paris Saint-Germain’s similar “quest” and Antonio Conte’s poor record in the competition. In a few months, when the Champions League “gets off to a good start”, we will have plenty of time to discuss all this.
Admittedly what counts now are opportunities like Celtic vs Real Madrid or Rangers vs Liverpool – at each of the stadiums. Try to tell Scottish supporters or Maccabi Haifa supporters that it doesn’t matter. Then there’s Shakhtar Donetsk in Celtic’s group, which promises to be the most emotional story of all.
But that is very different from the general uniformity of the draw. One of the reasons it feels so special for Celtic and Rangers is that two respected clubs find themselves in a pernicious limbo where they’ve grown too big for their domestic leagues but not big enough for the Champions League. And a side effect of that is that they will tower well above the rest of Scotland with the prize money for at least another half decade. That’s why the Champions League itself was so ruinous.
In that regard, Rangers actually have a real shot at getting out of their group in what could be one of the stories of the season – but with the same caveat. Ajax and Napoli have done well in the competition lately, and what’s the reward? They have lost many of their best players – and a coach – to wealthier clubs.
At least that makes them vulnerable. And points out why most of the unpredictability in this elite competition revolves around who finishes second.
There is at least a real danger for Group C, but not quite because it is the one group between three big names and Pilsen. That’s because one of them, Barcelona, took such a calculated risk to try and stay afloat at this level. Make no mistake. Barcelona’s entire financial strategy is based on being a glamorous club that goes far in the Champions League, so their competition is about more than glory. You can’t go wrong.
It’s just that we run into a familiar theme even there. Internazionale, who have won the competition three times, are less than two-thirds the financial size of Bayern or Barca. The Italians would have to go far ahead to knock them out.
The same can be said of their neighbors Milan – seven-time champions – and Chelsea. The 2021 winners going to the San Siro should be one of the big opportunities. Instead, it largely has the feel of a box-ticking exercise that almost encapsulates this entire phase.
It starts in 12 days to trigger a period where six rounds will take place in eight weeks due to another detrimental influence on the game: the Qatar World Cup.
The intensity of this can bring more surprises than expected, giving the early illusion of unpredictability. But enough to prevent, for example, Spurs’ passage from feeling like ‘a Europa League group’ as already described? There’s a good chance the superclubs have squads that are just too big. Even if they lose points in early games, the safety net is too high now.
The excitement in the group stage has never been greater. As in the past decade, 14 to 15 of the 16 richest clubs will make it through. It’s not a sport, it’s a record.
https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/champions-league-group-draw-uefa-financial-disparity-b2152877.html Excitement in the Champions League group stage is at an all-time low as financial differences widen