The problem with the Champions League group stages is that they are too predictable. That is why Real Madrid have lost at home to Sheriff Tiraspol, why Young Boys of Bern have beaten Manchester United and why Club Brugge can look down on Manchester City in the table.
It is why Barcelona are the lone side yet to register a shot on target and have made their worst ever start to the competition, why Sebastien Haller is its top scorer and why Christopher Nkunku has joined Lionel Messi as the only player to score a European hat-trick against Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Two matchdays in, the Champions League has done a fine job for exposing the arguments for the Super League, in particular, and a Swiss system for the group stages as the self-serving nonsense they were. The idea that the group stages are a mundane, forgettable procession has been dented by a series of spectacular scorelines – 6-3, 3-2, twin 1-5s – and some high-class games. The vagaries of the draw has helped, but a format that has pitted Juventus against Chelsea, Barcelona versus Bayern Munich, sent City to Paris Saint-Germain, taken Real Madrid to Inter Milan and allowed Liverpool to host AC Milan already has lent some benefits, even before the forthcoming double header between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid is factored in.
And if the presumption is that the usual suspects will still progress, some may not while others can testify about the jeopardy. Results thus far leave Barcelona the most imperilled but United and Inter among those at risk while AC Milan, despite contributing much to both matches, are currently pointless.
Moreover, while recent knockout stages have provided drama of such quality and in such quantity that it has been unrivalled elsewhere in the sport, the pool matches have had their fair share; the last round of fixtures brought Cristiano Ronaldo’s 95th-minute winner for United against Villarreal, Luis Suarez’s 97th-minute decider for Atletico in Milan and Sebastien Thill’s 90th-minute thunderbolt for Sheriff in the Bernabeu.
All of which has shown the merits of competition. Sheriff have been the revelation and if plenty have pointed out that their implausible journey has some less romantic elements, many could savour the sight of Club Brugge drawing with PSG on Messi’s full debut.
The 10 founders of the supposed Super League in action – minus Arsenal and Tottenham – may note that two of them prop up their respective pools, while a further three are third. It is harder to suggest that excellence is concentrated at a select few clubs who should be separated from the rest when Atalanta, Sheriff, Red Bull Salzburg and Ajax top their groups, with Brugge and Young Boys sitting second in theirs, and while the Super League plotters claimed there would be five invitational spots, it is hard to imagine they would have gone to clubs from Austria, Belgium and Switzerland, let alone Moldova (or Transnistra). Historic giants like Ajax and Benfica might have been overlooked, too, but instead clubs from the third pot of seeds have 100 percent records and are well positioned to qualify for the last 16.
Meanwhile, the Swiss system would complicate a fundamentally simple equation: each side faces each other home and away and the top two advance, which renders every game a six-pointer. It brings a purer sense of competition, especially to what look the tighter groups, either because they have evenly-matched sides or because the favourites have slipped up.
Given football’s financial gulfs, it would rank as an achievement by the seemingly lesser lights to eject some of the supposed superpowers from the competition before Christmas. And yet if there are cracks in the game’s economic model, those who wanted to smash it altogether and who seemed to use the Champions League group stages as part of the case to camouflage their greed may choose to look at both the matches and the outcomes. As is often the case, the best thing about football has been the actual football.
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