Uefa plan Champions League rejig to weed out weaker clubs
The early rounds of the Champions League could become knockout games to weed out weaker sides before two groups of eight are formed for the later stages, under plans being considered to breathe new life into the flagging Uefa competition.
Premier League sides anticipate an overhaul being announced as early as September, with a decision possibly being made at the Uefa Congress in Budapest in May, as the European governing body seeks a new format which removes the unattractive, one-sided games between clubs in the early rounds.
Europe's leading clubs have denied that they are considering forming a breakaway "Super League" but are frustrated by the way that relatively unlucrative matches against the champions of weaker nations are clogging up their fixture lists in the autumn.
Early-round knockouts were a part of the Champions League in its first year, when Leeds United's defeat to Rangers denied them a place in 1992-'93's full tournament. The new Champions League model - which is likely to be one of a number up for discussion - would mean the group stage starting when only the strongest sides are left in. That would generate more interest at a time when the Premier League is eclipsing the continental completion in terms of TV and sponsorship revenue.
The changes would not come into effect until the start of the new three-year cycle for sponsors and TV rights holders in 2018-'19 but there is an urgency to get them in place so that Uefa can begin to sell the new-look competition.
Uefa said last night that it accepted the competition needed to be reinvigorated and that clubs would play a substantial role in driving the change.
An example of poor fixtures cited to Uefa are Barcelona's games with BATE Borisov, of Belarus, last autumn, with comfortable wins home and away for the holders, who struggled to raise much interest in the ties. The inequalities stemming from Uefa allowing weaker nations' representatives into the group stage contrast with the Premier League, in which the billions of pounds in TV revenue have created an unprecedented level of competition and unpredictability.
There is likely to be some hard negotiating over the number of clubs from the richer nations accepted into the new competition. Manchester City are among those who feel that the standard of the Premier League - with world-class players at every club and even struggling sides set to earn £100m in TV money, £15m in ticketing income and £15m in sponsorship next season - means that five or six English clubs, rather than four, should be allowed to enter.
City accepted an invitation last month to hear the ideas of American company Relevent Sports - whose burgeoning summer International Champions Cup exhibition tournaments in the United States, China and Australia have attracted both Manchester teams and many of Europe's other richest clubs.
However, City are understood to have merely wanted to be in the loop of discussions relating to the European format. There is no desire to see a breakaway Champions League put into another organiser's hands.
Though City are England's last survivors in the Champions League for a second successive season, with Paris Saint-Germain their opponents in the quarter-finals, the club believe the huge competitive challenge of the Premier League is making winning the European competition an increasingly remote prospect.
City believe that some minor engineering of the fixture list to create a one-week break at Christmas would be helpful. They would also like to see an end to FA Cup replays - a very contentious issue in which they would not have the support of Manchester United, who are in favour of replays. They also want to see the League Cup semi-finals become one-leg affairs.
Both City and United are finding that the intensity of weekly competition in the Premier League is deterring some foreign talents from moving to England. Players are opting for the prospect of scoring 30 goals a season in La Liga, rather than the intensity of the Premier League every weekend. City hope that the arrival of Pep Guardiola this summer may help them persuade players to take a chance on England.
Independent News Service