at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
There are 16 places up for grabs in the Champions League first knockout stage, and 13 are already decided. Matchday six this week is largely a glorified round of club friendlies played before uninterested crowds.
Juventus and holders Chelsea will fight over the last place in Group E; Celtic and Benfica in Group G; Galatasaray and CFR 1907 Cluj in Group H. None of these teams play each other, though, and all the action takes place on Wednesday.
Tuesday is as good as dead. Exhibition stuff really. Squabbles over who comes first, as if that matters in a tournament in which Real Madrid, AC Milan and quite possibly Juventus will be in the runners-up pot; skirmishes over third place and the right to enter a competition that is so prestigious that Uefa are thinking of scrapping it: again.
The dreaded Europa League. Barely three years since the Uefa Cup breathed its last, Uefa president Michel Platini is checking the pulse of its replacement. Still, as ever, he has a cunning plan. Expand the Champions League to 64 teams and merge the two competitions. Yes, that should get the juices flowing again. More lame ducks, more dead rubbers. A group stage that trundles on and on, like one of those freight trains in America taking forever to pass.
The problem is the Europa League is failing. Crowds are small, television interest minimal and post-Christmas brings the march of the useless in which all the third-placed teams from the Champions League are parachuted into the competition to confirm its mediocre status.
Fulham, who were charting unknown territory, had great fun in the Europa League, but the teams fielded by Liverpool this season suggest priorities elsewhere. If any English club had a genuine chance of returning to the Champions League through league position next season, the Thursday game would be sacrificed in a heartbeat.
So what is Platini’s solution? In an interview with Ouest-France newspaper, he entertained a merger, pairing the tournament that doesn’t work with the one that does, to create a giant bunfight in which a team that finished seventh in the Premier League, won the League Cup or lost the FA Cup final could potentially end up champions of Europe; or in a pool stage match with Barcelona. Millwall, for instance, who lost 3-0 to Manchester United in the 2004 FA Cup Final, and qualified for the Uefa Cup as a result, would be there.
How would this format work? Having first arrived at 64 teams through the usual summer round of preliminaries, one presumes they would split into 16 groups of four. This would then be whittled down to a further eight groups of four, before the knock-out stages begin with 16 teams, then eight, four, and eventually the two finalists. That would make a total of 19 games, excluding preliminaries, up from a current campaign of 13. Maybe Platini could invent a 13th month to play it in, too.
Alternatively, the knockout stage could start at the round of 32, meaning a group competition comprising teams so weak it would barely be worth watching (Manchester United v Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, Real Madrid v Neftci PFK), followed by an unfortunate pairing with Barcelona and then out. Why would any elite club sign up for that? It would be financial suicide.
It was Platini who turned the Europa League into a Champions League Lite, when a better solution would have been to make it wildly different, returning to the immediacy of the old knockout format. A proper cup competition, without the safety net of group football.
Sadly, the Europa League, like most of Platini’s creations, was poorly conceived from the start. He isn’t very bright, this guy. He doesn’t think things through. That makes him dangerous. His supporters say he often floats ideas, like a 64-team Champions League, to test the water — or so other people can do the hard work and point out the flaws — but that isn’t correct either.
Platini may have been answering a newspaper question but he could have, instantly, ruled out a merger. Instead, he kept the plan alive. Some pretty half-baked schemes — financial fair play, expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams, those extra officials standing next to the goal doing nothing — have become reality this way.
For a man who played football in such a thrilling fashion, Platini comes up with plans that make for a moribund game. Financial regulations linked to income cement in place the existing elite. An expanded European Championship is less competitive, therefore less interesting, and the same would be true of an inflated Champions League.
Just because Platini said it in a regional French newspaper does not mean his cogs are not already whirring away on a plan to pit Barcelona against AEL Limassol. He will then wonder insightfully, three years later, why nobody is watching.– Daily Mail