By Peter Staunton
The Champions League is back. On Thursday in Monte Carlo, the draw for the group stages of the 2014-15 edition of the competition takes place. Among the competing sides, the usual suspects.
Champions Real Madrid and Barcelona lead the Spanish charge. Perennials Arsenal and Chelsea are back as usual while Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are again representing Germany.
There is a familiar composition to the group stages these days which detracts from the potential excitement within the Champions League format. Too often it's the same old story: a processional initial phase followed by an uninspiring last-16 round until the competition begins in earnest some time in the spring.
The Champions League is a steady source of income for Uefa and its major clubs and so any significant redevelopment of it would not be welcomed.
Instead, to make things a little more interesting and entertaining, Uefa could choose to implement these tweaks to ensure the first stages are not a turn-off and to spice up the latter rounds.
|DITCH THE FIVE-SEASON COEFFICIENT
The current Champions League seeding system uses Uefa's club coefficients to sort the teams into pots one to four. All clubs in Europe are allocated a ranking based on their performances in European competition over the previous five seasons - as well as the performances as a whole of clubs representing their national associations. Five seasons is altogether too long, however - and, as such, distorts the competition.
For example, had Manchester United qualified for the Champions League this season they would have been ranked among the top seeds based largely on their run to the final in 2010-11. This is a team who have just been beaten by MK Dons and bear no semblance to their counterparts of five seasons ago. Why do they still deserve the credit? By Uefa's measurements, United are still ranked above Atletico Madrid, who went all the way to the final last season and won La Liga ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The current system does not accurately portray which clubs are the best on the continent. It offers, instead, an easy ride to clubs who have banked 'coefficient credit' over the years but might no longer be truthfully among the elite.
It fails to acknowledge the coming forces as well as the best teams from the most recent editions of European competitions. By tweaking the system to ensure that only one season's worth of coefficient points is credited to teams, then Uefa would ensure a better supply of form sides to the top tier and not just those complacent ones no longer punching their weight but who are safeguarded due to past performances.
|DON'T PREVENT SAME-NATION CLASHES
Local battles are now the norm in the latter stages of the Champions League. Granted, we will never again have a one team per nation, straight knockout format in this cup but diversity is what captures the imagination of the wider football perfect - it always has and always will.
Uefa's appeasement policy towards the big clubs in the biggest television markets has created monsters. By ensuring that Real Madrid can't play Barcelona, or Chelsea Arsenal, until the quarter-finals, then the current stagnant situation will be perpetuated. There is barely any room for interlopers to climb in.
Too often derbies are now played out in the Champions League. When Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid met in the final in Lisbon in May, it was the fifth final contested by representatives of the same national association in the 17 seasons since the restructuring of the competition. Only four times since the restructuring for the 1997-98 edition of the Champions League have all four semi-finalists come from four different countries. Two of those occasions were in the first two seasons of the newly-formatted competition.
There hasn't been a semi-final comprising four teams from four separate countries since 2010. On six occasions the semi-finalists have been drawn from only two countries. We have, so far, been spared the indignity of four competing teams from the same country in the semi-finals, but the Italians, the Spanish and the English have been pretty close.
It is a dismal new reality but one which could be rectified quite simply. Unless teams representing the same national association happen to be in the same seeding pot, then let them play each other right from the off. The group stages, too often a procession, might be enlivened by a big clash early on and more diversity would be guaranteed later in the tournament.
|SCRAP AWAY GOALS
The knockout stages of the Champions League follow an all-too familiar pattern. The seeded teams invariably win the groups and then are given a runner-up in the next round. Their tie is played away from home first, giving them the opportunity to take advantage in the first leg, before doing enough at home and going through. It's a rare occurrence that this is not the case.
As a case in point, all eight group winners last season went on to progress from the round of 16 stage. Six of those were seeded. Only Manchester United, a crisis club under David Moyes, failed to score away from home and make the second leg a formality. They still had too much for Olympiakos.
Paris Saint-Germain's tie against Chelsea last season may have been the only one which was decided on away goals but it is a rule which looks increasingly out of date in this day and age.
"The weight of the away goal is too heavy, too big and is not justifiable any more," Arsene Wenger said in 2013. "When you went out of the European Cup (in the past), you got kicked everywhere but nobody said a word, so to encourage the teams to play they said: 'Okay, we give you an incentive for the away game'."
Back when it was first formulated, the away goals rule was designed to give visitors something to play for in hostile territory. Scouting of overseas teams was practically non-existent. Travel was more difficult. But nowadays, when teams are on planes twice a week, it should not be a big deal to score a goal away from home.
The threat of conceding an away goal makes an already-unfancied team even more wary and contributes nothing to the spectacle. It no longer encourages attacking play from the away team - they'll take an away goal if they get it - but actively discourages any sort of offensive threat from the home team for fear of being hit on the counter.
"In the modern game everything is on television and analysed, so there is no big difference any more," Wenger said. "Sometimes I think there is a counter-effect as teams play at home not to concede goals - now at home, the first thing managers say is 'let's not concede goals'."
Uefa could go the other way entirely and award 'double' for goals scored at home. Teams would be coaxed out of their own areas in an attempt to push up the scoreboard.