In case you didn’t notice, the UEFA Champions League started up again this week. Well, that’s not strictly true; the qualifying stages of the preliminary round started back on 26th June, just 4 weeks after last season’s final and while the World Cup was still going on.
What I really meant is that the Group Stages of the UEFA Champions League started up again this week. That’s right, it’s time for the elite to take the stage, as the last 32 are put in the familiar format of 8 groups of 4, before being halved just before Christmas when the round robin matches come to an end.
Let’s be fair – unless you’re a Celtic fan who has to endure qualifying rounds every year, or have an interest in some of the less glamourous leagues in Europe, it’s unlikely you’ve paid much attention until this week, but now, it’s time for the big names (teams and individuals) to get stuck in.
The last 32 is largely predictable. The EPL isn’t as straightforward as it was once upon a time – for many years Arsenal and Chelsea took two of the qualifying spots and they’ve missed out this year – but apart from the odd bolter (Young Boys of Bern have made it to the Group Stages this year for the first time) you know what you’re going to get – it’s a reliable product in that sense.
So, if the format is the same and the teams are largely the same, what’s new? This year they’ve altered the regular kick off times. Previously, unless there was a game in Eastern Europe or Russia, then all group games started at 6.45am NZ time (until our clocks change when times become more NZ friendly). Now, two games start at 4.55am and the rest at 7.00am. What’s the driver? So you can watch more games, increasing viewing figures and related revenue. It’s not aimed at us of course, but I’m not complaining as I’m usually getting the kids ready for their day during the second game, so if there’s an ‘early’ game I want to watch, I might be able to do so in relative peace, but for the European viewers, it’s potentially a significant move – the viewing figures will be closely monitored.
As usual, most of the favourites will navigate their way to the last 16 with comfort, but there are some cracking groups that are not so easy to predict. Group B is a beast for example, with Barcelona, Inter Milan, Spurs and PSV, a ‘Group of Death’ if ever there was one. Group C is another tough one, with PSG, Napoli, Liverpool and Red Star Belgrade.
Although the competition is heavily weighted in favour of more teams from the big leagues, i.e. Spain, Germany, England and Italy, with four teams each, you can see why UEFA do it – it leads to more competitive games in the group stages and yes, of course, those teams/countries are all powerful, so they expect a big slice of the cake. In rare moments, the old, romantic side of me would love a straight knockout sometimes, where the champions of each country all start at the same time and go straight into a home and away knock out situation, but those days are long gone, and I love the big clashes as much as anyone. I’m just glad it’s back and I’m glad I’ll get to watch some games live without having to be restricted to one eye on the tv from the kitchen while telling the girls for the 17th time that morning to eat their breakfast and get their lunch ready – bring it on!
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