Michel Platini ruined the Champions League for me. It took me about a year to realize how boring the group stage has become. I’m not saying he didn’t have (or still has) good intentions with the changes he made, beginning last season (2009-2010): separating the actual champions from teams that finished second, third, fourth and (depending on the league) didn’t qualify automatically.
Sure, it made things easier for teams from less popular leagues around the continent to make into the competition, and on the surface, narrowing the gaps between the big and smaller clubs. The truth is? There’s no gap-narrowing going on. Just looking at the top two teams at each group tells you the story—Tottenham and Inter qualified from Group A, Schalke and Lyon from B, Manchester United and Valencia from C and Barcelona and FC Copenhagen from D.
Wait, I know Copenhagen are the first Danish team to qualify into the knockout round. Still, Kazan and Panathinaikos aren’t better sides, and Copenhagen aren’t exactly a poor side with no European experience. The real problem is with teams like Zilina, Bursaspor and Hapoel Tel Aviv (don’t be fooled by the five points), and last season with M. Haifa (another Israeli team, the only club to score zero goals and lose all six matches), Debrecen and APOEL Nicosia. Some of these sides were embarrassing to watch.
I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong and just a bit old-fashioned, but I want the group stage to mean something, not being pretty much a practice round for the big and more established sides before the real deal begins. I don’t want to be bored with the groups after three games. I’m still going to watch probably, but there’s no tension, when you know who’s going to win in 85 percent of the games and of course who’s going to qualify.
Platini is right about the fact that this makes it more of a “Champions” league and not a European Premier League or something of the sort, but the product he has, and this is a product, isn’t as attractive, at least for the first three months.
Fixing it? I don’t think he will. He gets the support of the nations whose leagues profited from the change. I haven’t surveyed the entire football fanbase in Europe, but from the people I do speak to, even those who are fans of team that have enjoyed the newly-given advantage, most agree that the quality of football has dropped significantly.
I think that if the champions of a country, let's say, Israel, are good enough to make it, they should do it with the usual draw and not part the teams into champions brackets and non-champions brackets. Then we will have the truly strong teams qualify. Not fair for the little teams? I’d rather have plenty of ambitious clubs than see the groups filled with teams happy to come away with 0-0 draws every match.
The best option should be a blind draw in the qualifying rounds, giving the teams from the smaller leagues a better chance of not meeting an Arsenal or something of the sort. But my rant is getting too long.
There’s more Champions League tonight before we go enter the winter break, and let me finish with this: For the first time in years, I’m more excited about watching weekend league games than midweek Champions League. Even the Europa League is more interesting some nights. Shame. What a shame.