The Champions League group stages have been much derided in sections of the English media of late. The ease at which Arsenal and Chelsea knocked over their respective opponents and the Carling Cup-esque team that Manchester United sported against Rangers in the first week of games have led some to question whether these group games are little more than revenue earning strolls in the park for the top teams; a creation by UEFA to squeeze a few extra pennies out of the competition. This is a narrow-minded view to take to the Group stages, which may not have the glitz and glamour of the later knockout stages but add great depth to the competition.
Manchester United took on Rangers at home after ten changes had been made to the team that played Everton the weekend before. They went on to play out a rather dull draw. Some have suggested that Alex Ferguson’s team selection was an indication about how easy he thinks some of these games to be, and how straightforward he feels it is to progress through the group. The striking fact that they did not win the game seems to have been somewhat overlooked.
More often than not, a top team may be able to turn up with an under strength side against weaker domestic sides and still come away with the result. While this is only one game, it shows that in the Champions League teams will have the quality to hurt you or in Rangers case, secure a precious draw at Old Trafford.
Not forgetting the fact that the Arsenal defence looked rather fragile after they scored their first goal and Petr Cech made a number of saves throughout, Arsenal and Chelsea both won very convincingly in their games. This has been seen as evidence that the quality of teams that are playing in the competition are, on the whole, not overly high and some have questioned the merit of these games involving some of these ‘minnows’.
I would argue that the point of European competition is that it brings an extra dimension to football so fans of the clubs involved can watch different players, from different clubs, who play with different styles and tactics. This is what makes it interesting. Surely the way to achieve this most effectively is by casting the net widely across as many countries as possible and allowing even the smallest teams, who perform well domestically, the chance to compete on the biggest stage.
If the Champions League were left as the domain of the so-called ‘big clubs’ of Europe then it would become one-dimensional. Everyone enjoys the stories of the underdog playing on equal terms with a much fancied opponent. Who could forget Rubin Kazan running Barcelona and Inter Milan to the wire last year, featuring a brilliant 2-1 win at the Camp Nou? Or what about the series of results that led to Porto and Monaco contesting the final in 2004? I think certainly Monaco and Rubin Kazan, would have struggled to make it into a UEFA manufactured ‘Big 32’ (which would likely include 4 English sides, 4 Spanish and no diversity), had there not been a group stage in the competition, which would have meant we missed out on some of the most entertaining moments of European football in recent history.