UEFA Champions League 2013-14 Round of 16 Preview

It is only in four years that the UEFA Champions League is seen as a prelude to something even bigger down the road. It also provides Champions League an opportunity to establish the murmuring claims that FIFA World Cup is no longer the most sought after trophy in world football. With some mouth watering and some easy-on-face-value to be played out, Debojyoti Chakraborty comes up with a detailed preview of UEFA Champions League round of 16 in Goalden Times.

Breathtaking. Blockbuster. These were the first expressions I had when I came across the Champions League round of 16 clashes on 16th December, 2013, being drawn in Nyon by UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino, UEFA competitions director Giorgio Marchetti and Luis Figo, ambassador for the final to be held in his home city Lisbon on 24th May, 2014. These teams have come through the rigours of group stages and are supposedly the best 16 teams of the continent. So a tie involving any two of these teams – starting on 18th February and culminating on 19th March, 2014 – should be a tough one on the paper. But even then there are few clashes which would catch a few more eyeballs compared to others which have eased mounting pressure on some managers. Let us dissect the ties to see what lies beneath.

Barcelona vs Manchester City

Manchester City, the star-studded (or assembled?) side, tipped by many to win the domestic league in England, is up against Barcelona, one of the legendary sides of modern era. Such has been the impact and wave created by the sky blue side, that none seem to realize that they are the only debutants at this stage of the competition in the mix of 16 teams. Loss of Sergio Aguero – at least for the first leg – that too in lethal form would no doubt be a tremendous blow for Manuel Pellegrini. But he will surely try to make the most of his knowledge of Malaga days to tame the Spanish giants. And he will get plenty of support from the Spanish internationals Alvaro Negredo, David Silva, Jesus Navas, ex-Barcelona midfielder Yaya Toure and ex-director of football at Barcelona, Txiki Begiristain – the man who formed a unforgettable partnership with Pep Guardiola during his heydays. Citizens have already accounted for the defending champion Bayern Munich – which happens to be the only loss of the season for the German side – and they will not be in awe of the Catalans who are performing well below their standard. Just a small warning –after coming through a frustrating and injury hit 2013, a certain Lionel Messi has racked up 6 goals in 5 matches in February so far. Bad Omen for the Citizens!

Sergio Aguero will be missed in the first leg
Sergio Aguero will be missed in the first leg

Bayern Munich vs Arsenal

Bayern Munich are in red-hot form in their pursuit for the retention of the Champions League. If they can do so, they will become the first team to achieve this rare feat since the great Milan team of 1990. But they will face a tough opposition in the form of Arsenal. This will be a repeat match up from last season’s round of 16. And Philipp Lahm might not be playing mind games when he commented that Arsenal are “the toughest team we could have drawn”. After all they were beaten 2-0 at home by the Gunners in last year’s fixture. But the German champions, after their treble-winning season last year, have evolved even further under the supervision of Pep Guardiola. Arsenal have only themselves to blame. They not only lost to Napoli in the last group match, but also surrendered their chance to top their group and thus being drawn against possibly the toughest team in the competition. Bayern might just start as favourites, Arsenal fans may beg to differ. But one thing is for sure – we are going to witness a cracker of a match.

Arsenal will possibly face the toughest team in the competition
Arsenal will possibly face the toughest opponent in the competition

Atletico Madrid vs AC Milan

AC Milan is going through a transition period and entering the knock out stages of Champions League is a sort of achievement for the San Siro side. Languishing towards the end of top half in Serie A, newly appointed manager Clarence Seedorf knows that Milan will be absent from next season’s edition and hence would like to derive maximum out of this term. But they have been drawn against a highly inspiring Diego Simeone managed Atletico Madrid team. Not only are the Madrid side challenging for La Liga, they have fetched an impressive 16 points out of a maximum 18 in the group stage. With an attacking line up featuring David Villa and Diego Costa, the Colchoneros would look to eliminate the Italian challenge from this year’s competition.

David Villa and Diego Costa would look forward to a score a few against the Italians
David Villa and Diego Costa would look forward to a score a few against the Italians

Chelsea vs Galatasaray

Chelsea should be content with the opponent they have got. They could have been handed over a much stronger opponent at this stage of the competition. Galatasaray would be, on the other hand, buoyant after knocking off Juventus en route to the knockout stages. Jose Mourinho would also definitely not undermine the tricky first leg in front of a passionate and vocal Turkey crowd at Turk Telekom Arena. Neither would he want to make the homecoming of a certain Didier Drogba in the return leg a memorable one. After scoring an astonishing 157 goals in 341 matches for Chelsea, Drogba would not be wrong if he feels more at home in London. His strike force partner Burak Yilmaz also may want to justify his decision to snub Chelsea and stay in Turkey during the summer transfer window. But Galatasaray need a massive improvement, at least defensively, which cost them the most number of goals (14) in the group stage, among all the teams alive in the competition.

Drogba will return to the Stamford Bridge in the return leg
Drogba will return to the Stamford Bridge in the return leg

Real Madrid vs Schalke 04

The most successful team in the Champions League history, Real Madrid, is going through a lean phase in the competition by their own standards. Their last triumph came 11 long years back – since then they have been eliminated at the round of 16 stage six times. But the newly crowned FIFA World Footballer of the Year, Balon d’Or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo will have his sight set on this year’s trophy. Having already set up a competition record of maximum (9) number of goals scored during the group stages with only five appearances, Ronaldo would give his all to get La Decima home. Presenting a challenge to Los Blancos is Schalke 04. New manager Jens Keller is yet to find a formation and role to suitably accommodate both Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler. After progressing through a relatively easier group, if Schalke wants to have any chance of putting up a fight against Real Madrid, they need to sort out this problem very quickly.

Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler : Will they play together ?
Kevin Prince-Boateng and Julian Draxler : Will they play together ?

Manchester United vs Olympiacos

During a dismal Premier League campaign, the Champions League provides a welcome break for the struggling David Moyes and his Manchester United side. Not only do they got a relatively easier draw, the sell of main striker Kostas Mitroglou makes the tie even more daunting for the Greek side. Wayne Rooney might not have scored many but he leads the assists chart (6). On the other hand, David de Gea has kept the most (4) number of clean sheets. It looks likely that the Red Devils would be continuing their impressive showing against all Greek opponents in the competition – seven meetings so far with a 100% win record.

Wayne Rooney : Most number of assists in Champions League this year
Wayne Rooney : Most number of assists in Champions League this year

Paris Saint-Germain vs Bayer Leverkusen

This is the only tie where a team can break the dominance of Holy Trinity. PSG remains the only team capable of challenging for the title alongside the Spanish, German and English sides. And they get a very winnable proposition in the form of Bayer Leverkusen. Leverkusen is one of the very few sides to progress this far in the competition with a negative goal difference. This is even more baffling for a side marshalled by such a competent ex-defender like Sami Hyypia. No wonder that Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani should be licking their lips in prospect of a leaking defense.

Zlatan - Edison - Duo to watch
Zlatan – Edison : Duo to watch out for

Borussia Dortmund vs FC Zenit

If the Russian team wants to be competitive against the last season’s runner up, then they have to make it count in the (freezing) first leg at home. Zenit qualified from the group stages with a mere 6 points and a solitary win,least among all the qualifiers. Zenit shot stopper Yuri Lodygin though has been in excellent form as he has made the most number of saves (30) so far in the competition. On the other hand, Dortmund topped a very difficult group that saw Napoli bow out even after being equal on points (12) with both Dortmund and Arsenal. So the German outfit might argue they rightly deserved the rub of the green in the first knockout stage draw. Even with their unconvincing form in the Bundesliga, they should be able to win this tie quite comprehensively.

Yuri Lodygin : the most number of saves in  Champions League this year
Yuri Lodygin : the most number of saves in Champions League this year

Trivia

● Manchester United, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid are still unbeaten in the tournament. Diego Simeone can rightfully claim his side to be the best in Madrid and thus Atletico’s impressive run does not come as a surprise. Real is also not surrendering the city honours and keeping their reputation unharmed. What is amazing is the contrasting fortunes of the Manchester sides domestically and in the continent. It will be fascinating to see how long these three teams can keep their records intact.

● Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid have notched up maximum points (16) in the group stage.

● Among the 16 teams in the knockout stage, with one win and three draws in the group stage, Zenit have qualified with least points (6). Napoli, on the other hand, were heartbroken as they got eliminated even after getting to 12 points, same as the group topper Dortmund and runner-up Arsenal.

● Olympique Marseille got the wooden spoon as they bowed out from the group stage without any point.

● 277 goals have been scored in the group stages, 2.89 per match on an average. This figure is expected to come down in the knockout stages as the weaker teams get filtered out eventually.Last season 284 goals were scored,at an average of 2.96 goals per match in the group stage. The average came down to 2.75 in the round of 16.

● Real Madrid lead the goal scoring charts with 20 goals.

Real Madrid strikers are in a terrific form this year
Real Madrid strikers are in a terrific form this year

● Real also enter the knockout stages with the best goal difference of 15.

● Zenit have scored the least number of times (5) among the teams featuring in the round of 16. In the group stage, Real Sociedad scored the least overall – only once.

● Atletico Madrid, along with Manchester United and Chelsea, have been the meanest of them all defensively. They have conceded just three goals in the group stage. Among the three teams, Chelsea’s feat is quite astonishing considering that they were beaten twice in the group stages.

● Galatasaray have the worst defensive record; they have conceded 14 goals so far.

While some in UEFA are contemplating how to spread the beautiful game towards unheralded territories, it is worth noting that the traditional powerhouses are not letting it go so easily. Decline of the Azzuris is a sickening site but unfortunately no other new nation has emerged to grab the limelight. Even though the final 16 teams have representatives from eight different countries, England, Germany and Spain count for 11 of them. And there is very realistic chance that they will outmuscle others to reach the next stage of the competition. Goalden Times will be with you through out the journey. Follow football, follow us.

UEFA Champions League Final Preview

The biggest club team honour has reached its finale. Get the showdown of the Final encounter with Debojyoti Chakraborty

 

FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs. Chelsea FC (ENG)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

May 19, 2012

14:45 ET

19:45 GMT

00:15 IST (May 20, 2012)

 

After two contrasting semi-final ties, we have the two finalists for UEFA Champions League 2012. Bayern Munich, playing at home, will take on the surprise opponent in Chelsea. Not a line-up many had expected, rather another El Clasico was being anticipated as soon as the road to final was clear following the quarter-final draw. Purists may argue that the best team in Europe, or possibly the best team ever, has not featured in this year’s final. But one must remember that the finalists have come thus far by knocking out the so-called best teams. Chelsea have shown us what a strong, determined and organized defence can achieve even against the fearsome display of attacking football. The two matches of Chelsea against Barcelona, especially the away leg once their inspirational captain John Terry was sent off for an off-the-ball incident through a straight red card, showcased an amazing strength of character. It established the fact that defensive tactics can also be engrossing, a team can fight against all odds as well as the statistics if they can keep their shape. It also proved that there is no point having the lion’s share of possession with more shots on target, during a match, if you fail to do the single most critical thing – score a Goal. Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo had admitted that his side would require a bit of luck to upset Barcelona and there is no denying the fact that Chelsea have been fortunate. The Catalans  hit the post four times over the two-legged tie besides missing lots of clear cut chances to add to the penalty miss by Lionel Messi. But Chelsea took the opportunities when presented. Playing with 10 men away from home, in front of a buoyant Camp Nou crowd, they took the lead through an audacious Ramires chip – no mean feat that. They might have been criticised for sitting back and hoping for the best, but their tactics have worked and they are in the Final of the Champions League – who cares how!

Stand up and be counted

Homecoming

 Bayern Munich on the other hand continued their fine showing in the competition. They have picked up at the right time and have been lethal as the tournament reached its knock-out stages. One has to think deeply amidst the hue and cry surrounding the goal-scoring duel between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo that how can a player possibly score 40+ goals in domestic league? Surely the league is not sound in defence; Bayern surely caught Real Madrid off guard there. The German team showed no mercy for any defensive lapses Real presented them with and kept a tight back line – something the Spaniards are not used to back home. Besides, the Bavarians were proactive and took the game to the opponent even when 0-2 down at the Bernabéu. The German determination prevailed and they got one goal back which took the game to the penalty shoot-out. It is irony of fate that in one semi-final the better team over the two legs had to wait till the lottery of spot kicks to go through whereas in the other, the clear cut underdogs won easily – at least as per the score books (3-2 on aggregate).

Pressure will be on Bayern Munich as they enter their home turf at Fußball Arena München, to lift the biggest club team honour. The last time this had happened was way back in 1957 when Bayern’s semi-final opponents won the European Cup at the Bernabéu. Bayern’s midfield is in superb shape and it is vindicated by the fact that even a bad day in office (Franck Ribery at the Bernabéu) did not deter their chances too much.

 

Bayern will like to play a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation which would change to 4-3-3 while not in possession of the ball. They have a makeshift centre-back pairing where Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is expected to start in the absence of suspended Holger Badstuber and injured Daniel van Buyten. This coupled with the suspension of David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo would make Toni Kroos to sit deeper as a safety valve in front of the back four. The lynchpin in the midfield will be the stalwart Bastian Schweinsteiger – he will be responsible for dictating the tempo of the game and supplying the ball forward. Thomas Muller will be the most advanced among the midfield trio and would like to pressurize the Chelsea defenders as much as possible. The lone striker upfront, Mario Gomez is in superb form flanked by two deadly wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. The latter, in particular, has been lethal this season and the opposition wing-back will be in a dilemma to launch forward in presence of the Dutch assassin.

Chelsea will again enter the final on May 19 as underdogs – this might just suit them as there will hardly be any pressure to deal with. Following a season which has seen their domestic campaign fall apart, reaching the finals of the Champions League in itself is a massive achievement, that too under the  supervision of a caretaker boss (Avram Grant, anyone!).

 

With Captain John Terry, Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires missing through suspension, it won’t be surprising if Chelsea adopt a very defensive 4-5-1 approach once again. Garry Cahill is also a major doubt following his hamstring tear against Barcelona at the second leg of Champions League semi-final. If he fails to make it, Paulo Ferreira – with only one and a half Champions League games under his belt this season – might partner David Luiz, who is himself expected to be fit and available for the Bayern match. To shield the makeshift centre-halves, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel would be deployed as the holding midfielders who will complement each other in a double pivot role. Frank Lampard would like to link up with the front men whenever possible. But owing to injuries and age not being on their side, the midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are not the same players they used to be. It is likely to be a misfit against the superb Bayern midfield even in the absence of suspended Luiz Gustavo. On the wide right, Juan Mata would like to exploit any possible weakness in the German armour in the absence of Gustavo (left-sided midfielder), Alaba (left-back) and Badstuber (left centre-back). The opposite flank would be a toss-up between Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda. Up front, the work-horse Didier Drogba would be fighting for everything with Fernando Torres being used as an impact player. It will be very interesting to see how Chelsea can keep a clean sheet. And if they happen to concede – which if they do, won’t raise many eyebrows as they are fitted against a well-oiled German horse – will they be more adventurous and push more bodies forward? If this happens, spectators will be in for a very open game of football.

Both Chelsea and Bayern have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons throughout the season. Chelsea is still not sure if they would qualify for the next season’s finals. There is a controversy over dominance of senior players in the dressing room which has allegedly led to the premature sacking of former manager André Villas Boas. In a strange turn of events, the club which was heavily criticized for trying to buy a trophy is drawing unparalleled sympathy – for their underdog sticker as well as suspension ragged squad – at this stage of the campaign.

 

The Boss

Listen to me

Bayern Munich, on the other hand, have had to deal with egos of superstars for quite a while now.  Der Kaiser has often criticized the current bunch for their failure at the bigger stages. In a way he was asserting the glorious achievements of his own playing days. The chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is not far behind in blowing his (full) trumpet and that is not helping the team any bit but bogging them down with enormous pressure. Things have gone worse for them after surrendering the Bundesliga for two consecutive years due to some indifferent form. Their players are also nothing close to being innocent – Franck Ribery was recently involved in a brawl with Arjen Robben over a free-kick during the half-time of a match – which does not augment good team spirit.

Bayern Munich

Status

Chelsea

Status

Holger Badstuber (DF)

Suspended

David Luiz (DF)

Injured

Daniel van Buyten (DF)

Injured

Branislav Ivanovic (DF)

Suspended

Breno (DF)

Injured

John Terry (DF)

Suspended

Luiz Gustavo (MF)

Suspended

Ramires (MF)

Suspended

David Alaba (DF / MF)

Suspended

Raul Meireles

Suspended

Absentee Table

 As both the teams are hampered due to injuries and suspensions – mostly in the defence or defensive midfield position – goals are to be expected in the final showdown. With a compact and well organized midfield, supported by greater threat going forward, I would like to put my bet on Bayern to win the trophy at their backyard.

Of Champions and Also-Rans

UEFA Champions League theme song

Tuesday and Wednesday nights: waving flags, chanting anthems; a sense of pride. And in this culture, a guest coming home on either of these days is no God. Rather the guest is treated as Satan, the devil. Demolish the guest; vanquish him before he catches you. Yes, this is the culture of champions; also-rans do not have a place here.

So, who are these champions? We say they are the teams, the people and the matches that make up the league, make this game so beautiful and keep us engrossed through the year. But let’s ask ourselves, how much of that is true. Some questions keep cropping in my mind, time and again. For instance, do we consistently see good quality football throughout the year when we watch UEFA Champions League matches? Does the current format allow all the champions to participate in this competition? Can we afford to see some also-rans playing on a Wednesday night when a potential champion is sitting pretty at home?

Well, before we try to find answers, let’s first understand who we refer to as champions and also-rans.  Try to figure out how the Champions League evolved from the European Cup. And finally, chart out our options to ensure that on a May evening every year, we get the best team of Europe on the podium.

This article tries to focus on the above points, and subsequently propose a format, fresh or utilised, which will hopefully be acceptable to determine the ‘champion of champions’.

But before I get into the intricacies, I would like to highlight an incident that worries me somewhat. Otelul Galati, who has failed to secure a single point so far in the competition, is playing on a Champions League match day, while Kenny Dalglish, coach of Liverpool – a club which has won the trophy five times, is sitting at home on an early winter evening, sipping coffee.

We barely get much information on clubs like Otelul Galati, BATE Borisov, Trabanzspor, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and APOEL Nicosia as their domestic leagues are not generally telecast live. A few highlights here and there and some random videos available on the internet is all we get to know of them. Some football purists and pundits dig deep to find more about them alright, but not common viewers. This, however, does not imply that they should not get a chance to play in the Champions League. Logic is sometimes blurred by emotions, and big names always eclipse the lesser fortunate ones. We sometimes live in denial and refuse to accept that a Liverpool or a Juventus can be sitting out while a relatively unknown club from Cyprus plays in Champions League.

Owing to the history and the legacy of these mighty clubs like Liverpool and Juventus, we don’t quite want them outside the League. Now, who wants to miss out on a chance to see top European clubs playing against each other?

This page enlists the country coefficients of different European countries which determine the number of participating clubs from that country in UEFA Champions League. Let’s look back at some of the previous formats that existed in European Cup. It was a complete knock-out system with two-legged ‘home and away’ ties. A so-called big club may anyday lose to a relatively smaller club. Though the two leg home-away format practically eliminates the chance factor, the knock-out scenario, I believe is not quite the most suitable way to judge who will be the best team in Europe. Stade de Reims, the runners-up club in the first edition of the competition and also in 1959, now plays in Ligue 2, second division of French League. And such examples abound.

If we look at years that followed, clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt, Nice, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wiener Sports Club, Vasas SC, Shamrock Rovers and SK Rapid Vienna were regular visitors to the later stages of European Cup.

This brings us to the question as to whether the knock-out format was solely responsible for their progress (or lack thereof) in the European Cup; or maybe it was the age before the petro-dollar and globalisation, which is why a good Hungarian midfielder played for Vasas SC, instead of Manchester City: debatable. Guess people valued the clubs from their country to a great extent, and a lot of medium-ranked clubs had good players, and thus performed well. Nottingham Forest which won the competition in 1979 and 1980 consecutively is now languishing in the second division of English football. Malmo FC, Austria Vienna and FC Koln reached the semi-final of the 1979 edition along with Forest. Barring FC Koln, none of the other teams are even doing the rounds in major European football these days. Malmo FC, however, surface in UCL at times.

In the last few years, with the exception of Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona and Manchester United were arguably the two best teams in Europe, and they locked horns twice in the final. But the main drawback of the current format is in the collection of teams at the group stage, and in the fact that the second round is a knock-out round.

The face of football in Europe has changed. The competitive balance has also shifted. A whopping amount of money is floating around in clubs, agencies, and transfer agents. Insurance of players are at an all-time high, players’ values are totally re-organized. Since money took over, clubs like Malmo and Vienna began to fade away. On the other hand, clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea emerged as ‘Powers that be’, with apparently not much of history and success in European football. Some talented players who used to play for Sparta Rotterdam, Shamrock Rovers or Standard Liege are now travelling to either Chelsea, or Manchester City, or some other clubs backed by wealthy owners.

Some trends that seeped in the Champions League:

1. Top-nations have become increasingly powerful; one of them being England, and its performance is particularly prominent, while Germany’s performance has remained somewhat static. With its powerful performance, England has overtaken Spain and Italy in the past few years. Similarly, the French have overcome the period of downturn in the European Champions League, and their performance has significantly improved. Check out the latest UEFA coefficient rankings for 2012 and 2013.  .

2. The excellent performance is not only concentrated in a few countries, but in a few clubs too. Only 11 teams of the five top-nations can improve their performance constantly in the European Champions League.

3. The results of the European Champions League have become more predictable. After the year 2000, the top 10 nations are more-or-less constant in terms of their performance.

One consistent decline is that of Netherlands. PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam were two clubs who were generally regular visitors at the later stages of UEFA Champions League. Ajax formed a dynasty in mid 70s, and that brand of football is now calling the shots in world football through FC Barcelona. But the club has almost sunk into oblivion. Though they returned to the Champions League in 2010 after a long hiatus, the glory is all but lost. Portuguese clubs have emerged. Portuguese clubs, I would say, always provide a good competition. They generally remain in Pot 2 and Pot 3 during the draw, and make a seemingly uninteresting group stage interesting.

Which format should UEFA adopt for Champions League?

Before moving onto the discussion on the various types of formats that have been followed by UEFA for this competition over the last couple of years, I express my disapproval of the existing system. There lies an inherentflaw in the system. UEFA calculates the coefficients two to three years in advance. For instance, they are now calculating the country coefficients for the 2013-14 season.

In a dynamic football world, where a club slips into oblivion from the pinnacle of stardom in a matter of months, such treatment is far from fair. Since the European Cup changed to UEFA Champions League in 1993, the format has remained somewhat dubious. There have been a lot of knock-out games to start with, and in the end two groups of four were formed with group leaders advancing to the finals. By far it certainly wasn’t an optimal approach adopted to identify the best team in Europe. After two seasons, UEFA made a radical change in the format from the 1994-95 season. Four groups would play in the initial stage, followed by knockout rounds from quarter-final onwards. Some sense prevailed, and Ajax Amsterdam won the title for the fourth time. Few could argue that Ajax was the best team at that time in Europe, with most of the Dutch powerhouse players playing for Ajax at that time.

Then a slightly different format surfaced, with six groups in the initial stage. Group champions directly qualified for the QF stage, and two best runners up joined them in the QF.  Real Madrid won this year after 35 odd years, with a host of emerging players donning the all-white colour. That was Madrid’s first of three titles they would triumph (1998, 2000, 2002).

The 1999-2000 season saw another change in format, with eight groups being introduced for the first time in the first round. The top two teams from each group qualified to the second round, and those 16 teams were divided into four groups. This format provided very interesting match-ups in the second round, and became a real test of character and continuity for the participating clubs. The finalists of the competition would play 17 matches altogether in the competition.

Sadly, this format lasted till 2002-2003 season, as a lot of top clubs in Europe complained of being burdened with too many matches. Clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Juventus ended up playing more than 65 matches in the season depending on their success in domestic cup competitions. So this format was scrapped from 2003-04 season, and instead of four groups, a knockout round started with 16 teams from the second round onwards. This format is common to the FIFA World Cup, adopted since 1998.

Let’s discuss the best possible format to adopt in the UEFA Champions League and find the leading European team in a season.

Comparing some of the match-ups from the last season’s 16 team knock-out phase – Chelsea vs. FC Copenhagen, Manchester United vs. Marseille, Inter Milan vs. Bayern Munich, and Arsenal vs. Barcelona – two of these match-ups were final line-ups in the last five years. Bayern Munich and Inter Milan were finalists in the 2010 season. Both Barcelona-Arsenal and Inter-Bayern match ups were intriguing, and to be fair to other clubs, they all deserved to be there at later stages of the tournament. Instead, we saw Schalke 04 and Shakhtar Donetsk playing in the quarter-final stages. If we had a 4×4 format, we might have seen a second round grouping like this:

 In all likelihood, our last eight would have been Barcelona, Spurs, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Real Madrid.

If you go through the line-ups of the last 16 teams in the last few years of UEFA Champions League, you will come across many of them. So, how effective is this format really? To begin with, some teams have to play at least four games less every season.

Instead of playing six matches in the 4×4 second-round format, a team is playing just two home-away matches. Four matches mean four weeks to be squeezed into an already-tight calendar. With all the international matches, Euro and World Cup qualifiers and domestic competitions, this is surely a challenging task. The clubs from countries of smaller quotients might even argue that this approach lessens their chance of reaching the QF of Champions League. Considering the prize money for each round in UCL, this can be a big issue for teams that depend a lot on UCL qualification for purchasing players and sponsorships.

Whether we want to see the big guns all the time in the last eight, or do we leave the door open for the comparatively smaller teams and rely on ‘chance’ is a matter of endless debate. My personal take is always to get back to the 4×4 second-round format.

Here’s a revised structure I have worked out. The following format can not only accommodate more teams but also leave room for big guns to lock horns at the later stages of the competition.

First round: Knock-out home-and-away. (48 teams; Total matches 48; each team plays two matches).

Second round: 24 teams divided into eight groups, three teams in each group, round-robin home-and-away (Total matches 8X6 =48; each team plays four matches).

Third round: Eight group champions divided in two groups of four teams. Round-robin home-and-away (Total matches 12X2 =24; each team plays six matches)

Semi-final: Knock-out home-and-away (four teams; four matches; each team plays two matches)

Final: One match.

According to this format, the total number of matches in UCL will remain the same (125); the finalists will play 15 matches instead of 13 in the earlier format.

The main advantage of this format will be (depending on which side of the spectrum you are in) that the big teams can be a part of the round-robin format in the last eight. This format will also rule out the possibility of the same two teams meeting each other more than once during the course of the competition, before the final. Most importantly, if the initial number of teams is increased to 48, UEFA can think of including more teams from countries like England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Netherlands and Portugal into the main draw. Countries with higher coefficients will get more berths, and can have five to six slots. Liverpool, Juventus and clubs alike will not have to sit home for a comparatively poor season.

Although I find this to be an enhanced system, there is a catch to it. I do not claim it to be ‘flawless’. I realised there are a few drawbacks in this format as well. The so-called smaller teams get only two matches to record an upset in the first round. Consider this year’s scenario. Manchester United was defeated by Basel in the last match in the first round group stage and thus failed to qualify for the round of 16. This was possible because United failed to win few other matches, and Basel managed to win some matches against weaker opponents. Had this been a two-legged tie head-to-head between Manchester United and Basel, United probably would have been more cautious and would have won the tie. So this again raises the question, which teams do we want to see in the later stages of the UCL.

Two groups of the last-eight stage, according to the suggested format, can look like this-

Group A: Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich

Group B: Real Madrid, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Chelsea.

This is just a random choice; Liverpool, Juventus, Manchester City, Benfica, Ajax, Lyon, Tottenham, Leverkusen and many other clubs can feature in that list. But the take-home point is, instead of just two Barcelona-Bayern Munich match-ups, we would see all these teams play with each other twice. Chances of APOEL Nicosia vs Otelul Galati match-ups are eliminated in this format. At least I feel this re-constructed structure will give the so-called smaller teams a chance to achieve ultimate glory, theoretically. Only factor is, their margin of error will get even shorter.

But this is a competition, which can easily be termed the toughest in football, and it deserves to be so. The group stage provides all the clubs a chance to compete and cause an upset. But when the going gets tough, opportunities and a proper stage should be provided for the tough ones to get going. It all depends on who you want to see fighting for the Champions League trophy, come mid-May. If you want Marinos Satsias of APOEL Nicosia to lift the trophy at Allianz Arena, then the current format would suit just fine. But if you want to see Wayne Rooney trying to slide past Iker Casillas, or Robin Van Persie slot home a header past Victor Valdes or Lionel Messi’s sublime touch and Manuel Neuer’s helpless look, then vote for the 4×4 second-round format; or alternately consider  the new suggested format. It’s your ‘choice’!

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Subhashis Biswas is a professor of chemistry and a student of football genetics. Likes to travel to historical places, loves reading and creative writing in Bengali. Subhashis can be reached at subhashis.7@gmail.com. Subhashis maintains a blog at www.subhashis-mindcafe.blogspot.com