By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 12, 2013) US Soccer Players – On Tuesday, we return to Champions League business as usual. The knockout stage of the schedule moves to highlight games that are almost unavoidable for anyone with an interest in soccer in general, much less the European club variety. Though it’s not the Super League by another name, it’s close. The big teams playing other big teams with enough small clubs involved to maintain the ideal of an open competition. With that in mind, here are four things I believe UEFA needs from the 2012-13 knockout rounds.
A Dark Horse
If you look at the list of the 16 remaining teams, it’s easy enough to play ‘spot the outlier.’ Yes, all of these teams had to get through the group stage in first or second place, but some groups are always tougher than others. Add in clubs managing to self-destruct and erase their favorite status in the groups, and there are always surprises in both directions. Teams that should’ve made the knockout rounds ending up in the Europa League or out of European competition entirely and teams that weren’t favored ending up in the final 16.
Celtic is the team that best fits that description, especially since they didn’t undergo a January transformation like Galatasaray. Unfortunately for Celtic, the draw didn’t favor them, not even a little bit. Should Celtic – Juventus play to form, it will be the Italian champions advancing. We need a better matchup, and we get one next Wednesday.
Galatasaray managed to turn themselves into more than a club expected to exit in the round of 16 or the quarterfinals into a threat to the bigger teams. They did this by signing Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder in January, wiping out the scouting reports based on how they played in Group H. Those were flattering, including how to stop Burak Yılmaz. They’re a surprise to be sure, but they’re not a dark horse. That goes to the team they’re playing in the round of 16.
Jermaine Jones’s Schalke 04 are sliding down the table in the Bundesliga, displaying a problematic form that has them in trouble. They’re certainly not playing like the team that finished at the top of Group B, but there’s the nagging feeling that they’re due for a turnaround. Schalke succeeded early on this season by playing against its flaws. This isn’t a team that should be a problem for bigger clubs, yet Arsenal couldn’t handle them in London. Galatasaray has the name players, but Schalke might be able to pull together a turnaround in Europe’s prestige competition.
Superstars Playing Like Superstars
Call it the Galatasaray scenario. Should Drogba, Sneijder, and group stage scoring leader Yılmaz play to form, it’s going to take the best defenses in Europe to stop them. Playing to form is a constant issue in the Champions League. We have enough examples of a team’s chances slipping along with the consistency of their superstars. Since we’re talking about the Champions League, ‘superstars’ is almost always plural.
Competitive First Legs
Though it seems like each year the Champions League goes out of its way to demonstrate the flaws of the two-leg aggregate goals series, last season wasn’t bad. Sure, half the games finished the first leg at 1-0 or 1-1. Two of those ended up exactly how you would expect with the bigger club unloading in the deciding leg. That’s not entertaining for most neutrals, eroding the value of the tournament as spectacle.
When you’re talking about the Champions League at this stage, it’s a competition for the neutrals, drawing in bigger audiences than the combined fan bases of the two clubs. That’s why UEFA now schedules two games a match night for the round of 16 with the final on a Saturday. This is event soccer, and it needs the kind of first-leg that sets up a true decider. That’s not Bayern running over Basel after losing the first-leg, Real Madrid putting four past CSKA Moscow in Spain after drawing 1-1 in Russia.
Gamesmanship can ruin the spectacle, working to defeat the purpose of the competition. The easy fix are single-game knockout rounds, but guaranteeing games is part of the purpose of the Champions League in its current form. Instead, organizers need the draw to help. Last year, that was Milan – Arsenal, the only heavyweight matchup in the Round of 16. This year, Real Madrid – Manchester United is the highlight of the round, but there’s also Arsenal – Bayern Munich and Milan – Barcelona. Three games where no one should think the tie is over after the first leg regardless of the score. Good for the tournament and good for the neutral spectator, even if it means three fan favorite clubs on their way out.
Big Clubs Rewarded For Spending Big Money
It’s interesting that we have UEFA pushing for an increased economic parity through Financial Fair Play while running the game’s most lucrative club competition. We’re in the twilight era of clubs being able to spend what they want along with benefactors capable of erasing debt. Things will change for clubs playing in European competitions. What that looks like on the field at Champions League level is somewhat of an open question, but it’s a safe assumption that clubs won’t be able to restock with superstars in August or January with the same ease. That changes the tournament, already making the current version an artifact of an earlier era.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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