Meandering Champions League Feels Like It Needs a Spark

Of all soccer competitions, few deliver on quality action as consistently as the UEFA Champions League. Of course, much of that is down to the calibre of the performers in recent years, with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar ensuring that quality is always on show. However, quality does not always equate to excitement and one could argue that the Champions League has not delivered on the latter this season – yet.

Part of the issue is UEFA’s desire to seed the best teams for the competition, meaning the group stages will inevitably have little drama and eventually the big teams will progress. Sure, we want to see the top teams play in the latter stages. But must we always write off the groups stages as a dud?

Consider that at the time of writing (just before the final round of group games) Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich and several other clubs have already secured their passage to the knockout stages and will be playing dead rubber games to close out the year.

Nearly all favorites progress with room to spare
Only the, admittedly tough, group of Napoli, Paris Saint Germain and Liverpool have an edge of your seat finish lined up for next week. Although, Tottenham Hotspur also have a chance of upsetting Barcelona at the Camp Nou and squeaking into the knockout phase at the expense of Inter Milan. However, this reinforces the point being made – only the groups that have the big teams lumped together have been offering true excitement.

Of course, there is every reason to believe that we will get some thrilling action once the Last 16 gets underway in February. The sportsbooks have put three teams out in front in terms of the betting odds, with Betfair plumping for Manchester City as +450 favorites, Barcelona next at +500 and Juventus at +600.

Madrid given big odds to retain title
Again though, the top teams winning does not always make for a thrilling competition, and there is plenty of wisdom in using free bets for the Champions League to back the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich both at +1000, Borussia Dortmund at +3300 and even the much maligned Manchester United at +4000.

The problem though is that many of the fans will feel they have spent half of the season watching a warm up act, and it will only be February that brings the main event. With the exception of Liverpool and, perhaps, Spurs, who were unfortunate in their seedings, none of the top teams look likely to miss out on a berth in the knockout stages. Incidentally, both those sides have been given relatively big odds by Unibet to win the Champions League, with last year’s finalists Liverpool given a price of +1600 and Spurs a huge +8000. They will need a bit of luck to be in the draw in the springtime though.

UEFA favors bigger teams
While some fans might think this is a good thing, and of course we want to see the best teams contest the latter stages of a competition, you must also consider that UEFA is in danger of not having that organic build up of interest in the early stages of the competition. In other sports like NFL we can see teams like the Rams and Chiefs building up ahead of steam in the regular season – the context would be lost if we just watched them in January.

UEFA, unfortunately, seems to believe that having more games will always mean more fan interest. We have seen recently that they have mooted a Europa League 2, a competition for the middle tier teams in Europe. What will that even mean in terms of prestige?

There is much to love about the current Champions League, but it is consistently weighted in favor of the big teams. There is nothing wrong with seeding, but it feels like the competition only gets underway months after it begins.

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