There is, perhaps, no better indication of how broken modern football is that the return of the Champions League group stages feels almost like a palate cleanser. With the Swiss system to be introduced in 2024, and plans afoot for increasingly bloated World Cups to be staged increasingly often, the Champions League format appears by comparison a model of modest efficiency.
Sure, most people who have paid even a passing interest over the past year could probably predict 16 clubs to qualify for the knockouts now and be sure of getting a dozen right, but it will take only 96 games to sort that out. Perspectives change. What recently seemed distended and tedious suddenly looks thrillingly streamlined. Some of these games will matter. The raclette has become a sorbet.
But then the issue has never been the format – which is what, quite apart from the provision of “legacy” qualification slots for giants who have failed to qualify through league position, makes the move to the Swiss system so futile.
The format is good: eight groups of four with two to go through is simple and, with the third-placed sides dropping into the Europa League, should mean dead rubbers are kept to a minimum. That is important not only for interest but also for integrity: one of the many issues of the Swiss system is that towards the end, teams will have radically different motivations, with some having already qualified and some having already gone out playing sides still scrapping for the final qualification or play-off positions (or, even worse, exactly the same motivation, leading to the potential for mutually beneficial draws).
The issue is the final structure of European football and that there is a group of about a dozen super-clubs whose resources so outstrip the rest that their places in the last 16 are as good as guaranteed. But this season is slightly different, largely because so many of the super-clubs failed to win their domestic leagues last season, which pushed them down into pot two.
How long-term that downturn will be is debatable, but the pandemic has exacerbated existing financial difficulties for many of the super-clubs to the point that their era may be over and replaced by that of the petro-club. That, allied to a mischievous draw, offers an unusual sense of relative unpredictability.
The most obviously eye-catching is Group B, with Atlético Madrid, breaching the Barcelona/Real Madrid duopoly to be Spanish champions for the first time in seven seasons, facing Liverpool, a Porto side that reached last season’s quarter-finals and a resurgent Milan. The four clubs have between them played in 25 European Cup finals and while Milan are far from the force of a decade ago they are still one of the 30 richest clubs in the world by revenue.
Liverpool and Atlético should go through, but there is some sense of jeopardy.
Surprise champions in France and Italy have also made an impact. Paris Saint-Germain, in pot two after surrendering the title to Lille, were drawn with Manchester City, who beat them in last season’s semi-finals. But with two to go through it is always the third team in the group that determines how difficult it is. The games between teams backed by Abu Dhabi and Qatar will draw attention and may offer pointers to the latter stages of the competition, but far more significant will be their matches against RB Leipzig – the club funded by the energy drinks giant cast weirdly as fairytale outsiders, which is as grotesque an indictment of modern football as you’re likely to find.
That group may not be quite so tricky as it appears at first glance. Leipzig got through the group last season and reached the semi-final the year before but since then they have lost their manager, Julian Nagelsmann, the central defenders Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté and the midfielder Marcel Sabitzer.
Defeats against Mainz and Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga this season suggest how difficult the process of transition may prove.
It is a similar story with Internazionale’s group. Their presence as champions could have caused real problems for the pot two side, but Real Madrid have been fortunate. Not only are Inter significantly diminished from the side that won Serie A last season, with Antonio Conte resigning as coach and Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi sold, but neither the pot three nor the pot four side is likely to be especially challenging: Shakhtar are in transition and failed to win the Ukrainian title for the first time in five years last season, while Sheriff are the first Moldovan side to reach the group stage.
Barcelona, the other giant in pot two, albeit a diminished one these days as they battle their debt, may find it rather trickier. The issue is less Bayern Munich than Benfica, who have started the season impressively under the experienced Jorge Jesus, and Dynamo Kyiv, who lost one game in winning the Ukrainian title under the even more experienced Mircea Lucescu and have begun this season in fine form.
There is intrigue also in Manchester United’s group, less because Villarreal are the pot one side by dint of beating United on penalties to win the Europa League – useful as those games against Unai Emery’s side will be as a measure of the progression made by Ole Gunnar Solskjær – than because Atalanta, who reached the last 16 last season and the quarter-final the season before, as the team from pot three.
Group G, with Lille from pot one as French champions, Sevilla as arguably the weakest of the pot two sides, the rising RB Salzburg and Wolfsburg, the only side to win their first three Bundesliga games this season, is simultaneously the least glitzy group and the hardest to call.
Football can make any prediction look foolish, but only three of the eight groups look tediously straightforward, which by the standards of the modern game is about as open as the Champions League gets. The group stage remains a grim reflection of the financial iniquity of the modern game, but at least it is better than what’s to come. We should probably enjoy it while we still can.