Afternoon all. So I'm in Milton Keynes now, and I'm staying here until tomorrow, getting some rest and going to the match - MK Dons vs Stevenage, a true glamour tie. The reason I'm resting here now is this: I am going to attempt to walk to Watford in time for their Sunday game against Birmingham. Yes I'm a glutton for punishment and I couldn't get enough of them following last weekend's goalless draw at Coventry. Apparently its a 32 mile walk and I'll have to do it either side of nightfall and find somewhere to stay in Leighton Buzzard or someplace, should be fun!
Potential route pictured.
So the Champions League draw was made yesterday. Man City got drawn the toughest group of all in Group A, although mostly because they were in pot 3, being new to the Champions League. Bayern and Villarreal were not the hardest teams to get ahead of them, but Napoli from pot 4 will be distraught as they complete the group. Frankly all of these teams could find it tough in what looks to be a close group.
Man United had a different story, as they face Benfica again, and need to overcome Basel and Otelui Galati (who I confess to never having heard of). Chelsea have Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Belgian champions Racing Genk, not a straightforward challenge but a manageable one none the less. Arsenal face Marsille, Olympiakos and Dortmund, perhaps a more evenly matched group, as the other strong side from pot 4 is drawn against another English hopeful. Arsenal would be disappointed not to advance, though.
But the big guns were all drawn in Group H. One by one they came out, first pot: Barca; second pot: Milan; third pot..... BATE Borisov. Viktoria Plzen of Czech Republic completes the group. And herein lies my problem with UEFA's system.
The seedings for these draws are decided by coefficients that set teams into seperate 'pots' from which they are picked. The coefficients are a points system, based partly on the quality of the domestic league a team comes from, via that nation's club's past performance, but mostly by the club's own performance in European competition over the last 5 years. If a team is new to European competition, they will have a very low coefficient, and can expect a tough draw in any group.
Not that there should be a problem with this. 'New' teams like City should not be offered a helping hand into the upper echelons of Continental competition. Of course, teams need to prove themselves to push further through a tournament. However, it leaves an uncomfortable feeling when you look at the group stage as a whole. Six matches for each team, and when it comes down to the draw, Manchester United are looking down the pots and grinning. They will avoid all the big sides until February at least. Only Milan sticks out as a potential obstacle, but they have a one in seven chance of drawing them (Inter's group cannot face them because of the national rule). Valencia may be tough, but over two games, United should get the better of them.
Beyond this, the only potential problems are a couple of strong teams recently absent to Europe: Napoli and Dortmund. They succesfully avoid them for one of the cannon fodder teams in the draw, Galati (I say this making assumptions, but reasonable ones). Another filler team fills in the third spot.
Now when Barca got drawn against Milan, there were sharp intakes of breath all round. Group of Death prospects were premature. It would have taken Dortmund and probably Lille to stir things up. Napoli could not have joined the group because Milan are also Italian. As it transpired, Group A is the toughest group, not because it contains multiple favourites for the tournament, but because the teams are of a good standard but closely matched.
The point is, it is almost impossible to be drawn a truely challenging group where the seeded team is put to the test at all. The seeding system is set up heavily in their favour, and if a newcomer from a strong league appears, they are prevented from having to face them. For every Milan there are seven CSKA Moscows, for every Napoli there are three APOEL Nicosias.
So if the other teams are worth anything, why aren't they moving up the pots? The reason being there is no mobility in this set up. By this I mean the football equivalent to 'social mobiliy' - the possibility for a well run club to improve and compete with previously higher ranked teams. Even before the prize money by round is considered, it seems as if UEFA are actively trying to keep any different clubs from making the knock out stages. Take Ajax for example, a big club fallen on hard times, largely due to the standard of Eredivisie. They are drawn against Real Madrid for the second year running, this time facing Lyon instead of AC Milan. Does that mean this is their opportunity? Lyon have made it to the knock out stages every year for the last eight years. They have found their place. It seems that place is not for Ajax.
Many would like to see an FA Cup style draw, completely at random. This certainly contains the excitement the Champions League sometimes lacks, but others raise the point that the latter stages could contain some rather mediocre teams, if they get the luck of the draw. This is a fairly unlikely outcome that we would be seeing Zenit St. Petersburg make it to the final to face Barcelona, but it is understandable that everyone wants to see the better teams face off in the latter stages.
The problem is that it is being decided in advance who is the 'best'. A lot of presumptions are being made by fans and UEFA are acting on it. In essence, a season of no surprises is perfect for them, in terms of profitability. But what football fan wants that? The 'best' team should be decided on the pitch on the day, and nowhere else. Actively trying to pitt the recently strongest teams against the recently weakest teams dilutes the competitive nature of this competition.
It would at least be helpful if the coefficient system actually took account of who teams lost to. If Benfica come third with six points, they will be rewarded exactly the same as BATE if they achieve the same record. And when you add the large sums of money awarded to the teams advancing each round, it simply acts as a cement to secure the dominance of the big clubs for future years.
Either way, the reality is that UEFA want to make the most money possible from running this ship, and that way is to get Barca, Real and English teams into the final, with Bayern and the Milan teams as a sideshow. Anything else is lost profits.