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London – The Champions League, for the past decade, has been the best tournament in world football. In my opinion, it has been superior to both the World Cup and European Championship.
Those high standards would be under threat, though, if it were to expand from 32 teams to 64, as Michel Platini has suggested might happen.
Football is always evolving and I understand that new ideas have to be implemented from time to time but increasing the numbers competing in the Champions League is not the way to go.
If you look at the way the group stages have fizzled out over the past couple of years, you will see that more teams won’t raise the quality. Interest in the group stages has been dwindling and it has only been at the quarterfinal stages that the competition has come alive.
So how does Platini make the Champions League exciting from the start?
Apart from winning the tournament in 2005, the best experience I had in the competition came during the 2001-02 season when there were two group stages.
After getting through the first phase, when Liverpool were drawn with Boavista, Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Kiev, we were paired with Barcelona, Galatasaray and Roma.
That type of group is what the Champions League is about. Every game meant something, every goal that was scored mattered.
We only ended up getting through to the quarterfinals by beating Roma 2-0 in the last game at Anfield. It was the night Gerard Houllier returned to the dug-out after he had suffered a heart attack.
Of course, the obvious problem with two group stages would be fixture congestion. I read with interest Martin Samuel’s column on Monday, about returning the competition to pure knockout football all the way through.
I would strike a balance by keeping 32 teams but start with a knockout round. So this year, for instance, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea would have had to negotiate a two-leg sudden-death tie first.
The draw for the knockout stage would be seeded, so you would never get a situation where Barcelona faced Real Madrid. Some people might say that is unfair to the smaller teams and nations that Platini wants to get involved. He should be credited for trying to help them but it is taking things away from the group stage.
Surely the minnows in the competition should want to prove that they belong in the competition? Wouldn’t that create more excitement? But with so much to lose, you could guarantee that all the seeded teams would be fully committed, regardless of who they were playing. That, in turn, would lead to better games.
You would then be left with four groups of four, with the top two going through to contest the quarterfinals. You could almost guarantee that every game in the group stage would mean something and be of a high quality.
Wouldn’t it be great if all the groups were of the quality of the one this season that contains Real Madrid, Dortmund, Ajax and Manchester City? The problem when you have a 32-team group stage is that a lot of fixtures can be monotonous. The World Cup group stage, for instance, doesn’t have the same intensity as the European Championship.
Of course, the idea might get opposition from the big clubs, who would be fearful of falling out at the first hurdle and missing out on the subsequent revenue but wouldn’t that make things more interesting and exciting?
The aim for the Champions League has to be for every group game to mean something but, at the minute, they do not — just look at some of the matches that were played this week.
When the Champions League was envisaged, nobody would have foreseen teams fielding weakened sides. That, however, is now the reality.
*Jamie Carragher was talking to Dominic King – Daily Mail