European superpowers in cruise control

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Out of the 125 matches played in the 2008-09 UEFA Champions League, more than three-quarters will take place in the group stage.

Yet as Europe's biggest clubs flex their muscles in search of one of soccer's biggest prizes, the early part of the competition is increasingly evolving into a mere appetizer ahead of the main course of the knockout phase.

On only the third matchday of this season's tournament, we saw leading teams resting key players or withdrawing them from action early.

Dimitar Berbatov scored twice for Manchester United against Celtic, setting up a comfortable victory for the hosts at Old Trafford. Steven Gerrard was pulled off by coach Rafa Benitez with Liverpool leading 1-0 at Atletico Madrid, who came back to clinch a 1-1 draw. And Thierry Henry watched from the bench as Barcelona thrashed no-hopers FC Basel 5-0 in Switzerland.

Basically, things have become too easy for the sides who dominate in Europe year after year.

In the early years of the Champions League, with either two or four pools of four teams, there were no easy groups. Even teams like United, Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich were forced to fight all the way for the right to reach the next round.

Now, with the dilution of talent caused by the involvement of too many weak teams, the top dogs can go into cruise control early on.

Berbatov was replaced after an hour as Sir Alex Ferguson kept one eye on this weekend's visit by Everton in the English Premier League. Gerrard lasted only a minute longer in Madrid as Benitez wants him fresh for a crucial EPL showdown at Chelsea on Sunday and brought on Ryan Babel in his place. And with many teams surging to the top of their Champions League group, we could see some heavily depleted lineups during Matchdays 4, 5 and 6.

UEFA president Michel Platini has spoken of his wish to reduce the number of teams allowed to qualify from the top leagues in England, Spain and Italy from four to three. However, while that would be a welcome boost to teams from the smaller European leagues, it would do nothing for the state of the competition.

Fans love the Champions League because it features some of the greatest club teams on the planet. What they want to see is the best battling the best and being forced to play its best to succeed.

You can't blame coaches like Ferguson or Benitez for taking the steps they did this week. Both men acted sensibly, even though Liverpool was held to a point. But the Champions League will only live up to its star billing if champions are made to produce championship form or risk elimination.

The competition is full of impressive performances and has been exciting and enjoyable so far.

Unless the dominance of a handful of experienced and giant clubs is challenged, then a worrying trend of predictability could set in.

Bayern Munich's form in the German Bundesliga this season has been ordinary so far, with only three wins from eight games putting them in 11th place and new coach Juergen Klinsmann under pressure.

However, a serious challenge from the four-time European Cup winners in the Champions League cannot be discounted, especially after Tuesday's 3-0 victory over Fiorentina.

In domestic action, Bayern look fragmented and lacking confidence but have experienced few such problems in the Champions League. Miroslav Klose is finding his goal-scoring touch, while big striker Luca Toni acted as provider, setting up two goals against his former club.

Klinsmann seems to have his side well set up to be dominant in Europe, and if he can sort out his troubles on the home front, he could be thriving in his Bayern reign after a troubled start.

Man of the matches: Youngster Karim Benzema was sensational as Lyon won 5-3 away to Steaua Bucharest, and he continues to establish himself as one of Europe's most exciting talents.

Shock of the week: No huge shocks but Dynamo Kiev's 1-0 victory away to Porto was highly impressive, capped off by Olexandr Aliyev's magnificent free kick.

Milestone: It was all too easy for Barcelona, as the Catalan superstars kept their perfect record intact by destroying FC Basel 5-0 for the club's 200th victory in European club competition.

We're happy: Villarreal finally found their scoring form, winning a 6-3 thriller against Danish champions Aalborg. The Yellow Submarine has the firepower and confidence to go a long way this year.

We're not: Real Madrid should still comfortably reach the last 16, but they looked out of sorts against an inspired Juventus side, losing 2-1 in Turin to surrender the top spot in Group H.