Champions League: Premier League to dominate again

UEFA didn’t need a faux-pas at the Champions League draw. Already under scrutiny for the somewhat autocratic way they run European football, the governing body was left red-faced over its null and void draw, fuelling more criticism from those advocating change around the governance of the game.

Doubtless the incident increased anxiety in Nyon, for UEFA can’t have been happy that one of their blue riband clubs, Barcelona, had already been eliminated from the Champions League. Although there was a lot of hand-wringing about Barca’s decline, joining them in the Europa League play-offs were Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Sevilla and RB Leipzig. 

Their absence from the last 16 was not accompanied by the sort of dystopian narrative that Barca’s early departure from the Champions League warranted, but certainly in the case of Dortmund and Porto, two previous winners, it was something of a surprise. Both clubs have been involved in the knockout phase at least half a dozen times apiece in the last decade.

What has happened this year is that the last 16 field looks more diverse than it has done for a while. For a start, there are four teams from outside the big five leagues: Ajax, Benfica, Sporting and Salzburg. You could argue that these teams represent that group of clubs who dominate at home but struggle to compete consistently at the highest level. However you describe the position these clubs have in the modern game, it is always good to see the likes of Ajax and Benfica back in the mix. 

Ajax had an impressive group stage, scoring 20 goals and winning all six of their games. Only three clubs managed to come out with a 100% record, Bayern, who were also top scorers with 22 goals, and Liverpool were the others. They were also the only unbeaten teams. Benfica came through the group that included Bayern Munich and Barcelona, while Sporting edged out Dortmund.

Redrawing the last 16 will undoubtedly cause UEFA further headaches as disgruntled clubs complain they have been disadvantaged compared to the initial draw. Six have arguably been given harder tasks: Salzburg, Sporting Lisbon, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. One tie remained the same: Lille versus Chelsea, which was just as well given Blues fans would have rushed out to buy Eurostar tickets after the first attempt.

The second batch of ties is actually far less interesting than the initial exercise. In Last 16 1.0, there were three “replays” of past finals: Ajax v Inter Milan; Real Madrid v Benfica; and Bayern Munich v Atlético Madrid. Furthermore, there was the opportunity to see Cristiano Ronaldo come face-to-face with Lionel Messi as Manchester United faced Paris Saint-Germain.

Not that Last 16 2.0 doesn’t have its gems. Ajax v Benfica, Liverpool v Inter and Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain all have the potential to be ties to savour. With four teams in the last 16, England should be well represented in the quarter-finals, with the quartet of Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs all capable of winning their games against teams from Portugal, France and Italy.

English clubs’ recent record – two all-Premier clashes in three seasons – suggests the league has claimed its place at the forefront of European football. It is difficult to see that situation changing in the coming months. Our last eight prediction is therefore fairly predictable: Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Ajax, Chelsea, Manchester United, Juventus, Liverpool and Real Madrid. And an early forecast of the winner? City.

Nul points for the Champions League draw

ONCE upon a time, a football cup draw was conducted in an oak-panelled room, cigar smoke swirling, and the reassuring muffled sound of snooker balls being shaken in a velvet bag. It felt like some ancient, secretive ritual, one that could easily have been performed by dark-suited Masons or an elite cult.

We’ve moved on, of course, but today, a cup draw can be complex, mathematical and somewhat superficial. Want to complicate something that should be fairly simple? Ask UEFA to arrange it.

This year’s Champions League group stage draw went to new lengths of tedium, an hour and a half of game show presentation, fronted by a boy-girl partnership that was all white teeth, split skirts and a script right out of Alan Partridge. Someone ought to tell some of the guests that trainers and a well cut suit do not look good on everyone.

Admittedly, UEFA wanted to move on from a couple of grey-suited but amiable fellows who get wheeled out from the backroom every time there’s a cup draw, but moving it into the category of “every function is an event” did look like the governing body had been told to use up as much air time as possible.

And how many people truly understood the Champions League formula for working out the groups? No wonder the audience sat there dozing, some maybe looking at their watches and wondering how long they had to get to Istanbul airport for their return flight.

At the end of the day, one thing we do know about the Champions League is that the groups comprise the same old contenders and the minnows that make it through are there for cannon fodder. We all know that the pots will create eight groups of a seeded big guy (although this year, Pot 1 was clearly weaker than Pot 2), a tough opponent, one Europa-class team and a no-hoper. Unsurprisingly, you get a few “we’ve met before, haven’t we?” situations.

For example, Liverpool are more than familiar with Porto and Paris Saint-Germain and RB Leipzig know the flight times to their respective cities quite well. Real Madrid and Shakhtar have been stable-mates a couple of times in the recent past and Bayern Munich are well aquainted with the city of Lisbon and Benfica.

But let’s dispense with making the UEFA Champions League an extension of the Eurovision Song Contest, it’s not necessary and do we really want this to evolve into a variety show involving dancers, pyrotechnics and orange hosts with immaculate white teeth? There’s surely a happy medium out there somewhere.