Champions League: Early heavyweight clashes in the tournament will dilute its business end
There are positives and negatives that the new seeding system brings with it, but in a competition like Champions League and given the a stature that it has, there must be no compromise in structure
Editor's note: The draw for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 threw up some exciting clashes. However, there has been a feeling that some of these clashes had come too early in the competition due to the seeding changes made by the UEFA. There is also a certain set that feels the changes made to the seeding system benefits the lesser sides in the competition. The following article offers one point-of-view regarding the seeding changes and how it affected the draw. To read the counterpoint, click here.
Mouthwatering! It's a word many would have used to describe proceedings in the UEFA headquarters in Nyon on Monday as the draw for the Round of 16 of the Champions League — the greatest club competition in the world — was made.
Real Madrid vs Paris Saint-Germain. This match-up stood out almost immediately. The European champions versus the biggest spenders, according to many their strongest challengers and the greatest threat to Los Blancos' recent continental dominance. Many would have had it as their pick for the final, the dream final, at the start of the season, but now it has come a lot earlier than expected. Problem? Or not at all?
The teams don't change, so on that front, there shouldn't be a worry. But the question that remains is whether a game of such magnitude deserves a greater pedestal. Or should the winner have a greater prize at the the end of it than a quarter-final berth. Would the drama in the contest have been greater had the duel taken place in the semi-final or final? With more at stake, maybe it would have been.
However, what it does do is put a genuine contender with serious ambitions of winning the competition out at an early stage. The result of it would be that there may be an underdog or two in the quarter-finals or even the semi-finals as seen in the case of Leicester City and AS Monaco last season. While the presence of such sides adds to the romance of the competition, it only does to an extent. These teams more often come horribly unstuck in the latter stages of the competition, partly due to lack of calibre, but equally out of fulfilment of appetite. Those teams are never in it to win it, so even losing at that stage comes with a pride. For a competition as fierce and keenly-contested as the Champions League, it's not an ideal scenario. There can't be a parallel in the drama for the two teams whose seasons hinge respectively on reaching or not reaching the final.
Chelsea vs Barcelona, Juventus vs Tottenham Hotspur are clashes that perhaps warrant a greater pedestal too, but the changes in the Champions League seeding system means such titanic match-ups are likely to come sooner, even in the group stages — as seen this season when Bayern Munich and PSG were paired together in one group — in upcoming seasons.
According to the new system, the top pot ahead of the group stage draw consists of the defending champion and winners of the league competition of UEFA's top seven-ranked nations. Earlier, the seeding was based on the UEFA coefficient that was determined by taking into account a club's performances in the Champions League or Europa League in the previous five seasons, and 20 per cent of the coefficient of the club's association.
The new system rewards performances in domestic leagues over pedigree in the Champions League, and tries to put the winners of slightly less competitive domestic leagues on par with powerhouses from the bigger leagues. This helps champions from the weaker leagues like the Russian league, the Dutch Eredivisie and the Portuguese leagues a better shot at prolonging their stay in the competition and thereby gaining on revenue. However, to retain this privilege for their next Champions League campaign, winning the domestic league again becomes crucial as runners-up from those leagues don't get any special help during the seeding.
So instead of basing emphasis on a club's previous domestic campaign, the earlier system, which entailed their performance across the five seasons in Europe along with a small per cent of the coefficient of the club's association, made greater sense while determining the seeding before the Champions League group stage. It rewarded a club's performance over a greater period of time.
'Sporting merit' was one of the reasons cited by the then UEFA president Gianni Infantino before announcing the new seeding system, but merit is not acquired over just one season, and a larger time frame to devise the seeding, especially when the past season's performance is already taken into consideration to determine a team's entry into the competition, would be the right way to go.
The system that existed in the past enabled the best teams to clash at the business end of the tournament and produce spectacular duels that have been reminisced for ages. There were also the odd underdog stories like Schalke's run to the semi-finals in 2011, Malaga's quarter-final appearance in 2013 and so on.
In the group stage as well, the new seeding system creates scenarios that are better avoided. With big teams not separated as before, the incentive to finish at the top of the group has reduced. A number of top teams are certain to finish second in groups that include more than one of those sides. So even after finishing top of a Champions League group, a team can draw one of the tougher teams to beat. In the group featuring PSG and Bayern Munich, the Paris outfit ended up getting the tougher draw despite finishing the group on top while Bayern Munich got a relatively easier draw in Besiktas. Thus, the incentive to finish top of the group is reduced and some of the last group games hold much lesser relevance.
There are positives and negatives that the new seeding system brings with it, but in a competition like the Champions League that is the most premium one in football, parity must not be forced. Premium should stay premium and not be diluted.
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