Three reasons for UEFA to be cheerful with the new Champions League format

December 10, 2009

APOEL Nicosia, Olympiakos and FC Zurich’s performances in the Champions League this year may have done enough to strengthen the case for more group stage places to be kept open for teams from smaller soccer countries.

Earlier this year, UEFA decided to split the qualifying contest into two halves — one for teams who are champions in their countries, the other for non-champions.

The logic was that winners of the smaller leagues such as Switzerland, Austria, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and Moldova, to name but a few, would not have their path to the group stage blocked by the likes of non-champion teams such as Arsenal, Fiorentina and Atletico Madrid.

FC Zurich, Olympiakos, Debrecen, Maccabi Haifa and APOEL Nicosia benefited as they took the five places kept open for champions of lesser-ranked countries.

Despite UEFA’s laudable intentions, there were of rumblings of discontent among some of the bigger clubs. Many felt these teams would be unable to hold their own with the likes of Real Madrid and AC Milan.

In the event, the smaller clubs were far from disgraced. Admittedly, there were two disasters, Debrecen and Maccabi Haifa, who crashed out without notching a point and, in the latter case, even scoring a goal.

But — give and take the odd thrashing — the others gave UEFA reasons to be cheerful

FC Zurich beat AC Milan away and deserved better than a 1-1 draw in Tuesday’s return — a result which would have cost the Italians a place in the knockout stages had Olympique Marseille done their homework and beaten Real Madrid.

APOEL mustered a modest three points but they did not lose any game by more than one goal and scored first away to Porto, at home to Atletico Madrid and away to Chelsea.

Zico’s Olympiakos did even better by qualifying for the knockout stages.

Some of the worst performances actually came from teams who went straight into the group stage, notably Rangers (who lost all three home games, two of them by 4-1 scorelines) and AZ Alkmaar.

Atletico Madrid, who had to play only one qualifying tie, were also pitiful, managing only three points and getting eliminated with two games still to play.

No fewer than 22 of the 32 places in the group stage are “captive” — three for England, Spain and Italy, two each for France, Germany and Russia and one apiece for Romania, Portugal, Netherlands, Scotland, Belgium, Turkey and Ukraine.

If UEFA plans to tinker with the format, perhaps they should reduce the number of automatic qualifiers and open up the contest to more teams who have actually won the leagues in their respective countries.

PHOTO: Olympiakos Piraeus’ players celebrate after their Champions League soccer match against Arsenal at Karaiskaki stadium in Athens December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

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