If the competition’s group stage has recently become a round to pay minimal attention to, this is a season to really savour it. That is because it’s the last one before the introduction of the Swiss system.
This will be the last campaign we go through the satisfying symmetry of the round-robin, hoping it builds up to one of those final matchdays – part of a lexicon that is the stage’s legacy – where it is anything but symmetrical and chaos reigns. The clean nature of the format has produced some wonderfully untidy endings.
Appropriately, a returning Arsenal will aim to relive how often they got through under Arsene Wenger. Newcastle United will doubtless be seeking to build atmosphere by showing Faustino Asprilla’s hat-trick against Barcelona in 1997-98, as well as the stirring comeback in 2002-03. Manchester United, the English club perhaps most associated with how thrillingly exacting the group stage used to be, are back for one final fight. It might not be easy, but that may not prove such an obstacle to getting through.
This is, of course, a large reason why this is the last group stage. All it has really got left is nostalgia. There have been fewer and fewer nights where you feel the old tension. On average, 15 of the 16 wealthiest usually get through every season.
It was arguably why Manchester City’s long-awaited victory was the real start of a new era, more so than this end to the traditional groups, or the fact this is the first campaign since 2002-03 without Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The defending champions are the first state-owned club to win the competition, capping how the entry of such interests and an escalation of a very Western form of capitalism have had such a transformative effect on European football. This is why the group stage was changed. The constant raising of the financial threshold has made so much of it so predictable.
Altering the format is, of course, addressing the wrong issue. The problem isn’t the structure but structural financial inequality.
Through that, City’s win coincided with how the Champions League was already losing some of its lustre. That sense of suspense is gone. Its world feels smaller, with fewer and fewer clubs able to realistically think they can win the trophy.
Can anyone really think that at all this season outside City? Has there ever been any time when one team were such overwhelming favourites, without anyone close to a comparable heavyweight? Barcelona 2009-10 or 2010-11, perhaps, but even that was in a less financially-stratified football world. That economic structure is one factor explaining City’s power. Consider Barcelona’s own group stage from 2009-10, and how testing it was. They lost at home to Rubin Kazan, and came close to going out. The other side is just how good Guardiola has made this City, and how they brutalised both Bayern Munich and Real Madrid last season. Wenger’s description of AC Milan as “super favourites” to his Monaco staff in the 1990s doesn’t feel like it adequately describes the current champions. Even in regards to potential flaws in the City side, last season’s victory has already removed virtually all of the self-doubts that made their European ties more enthralling.
One of the dominant recent storylines has ended, Pep Guardiola is instead seeking to fortify the argument that he is the greatest of all time by retaining the trophy for the first time in his career and matching Carlo Ancelotti with his fourth as a manager.
Sprinting into the breach left by Messi and Ronaldo, Mbappe knows the trophy is crucial to his own legacy. He is said to be more aware of this than any previous player, even those two totems. It’s partly why he wants to go to Real Madrid, although his own last season at Paris Saint-Germain may well coincide with the club finally putting in place a team that has a football logic.
That, in turn, means that the soap opera element of this sportswashing project could have gone, maybe making PSG less interesting. Under Luis Enrique, though, a hard-running young team look more capable of going the distance.
That prospect is why Kane has gone to Bayern Munich, and the fact that the final is being staged at Wembley only adds to one of this campaign’s more enthralling individual narratives. Jude Bellingham will be looking at it the same way with Real Madrid.
Beyond that, though, it doesn’t feel like there are many other foreign clubs that can really challenge the Premier League’s power. This is how the world of the Champions League has got smaller, with the solution to bloat the opening stage next season.
There is still a sense that Xavi’s Barcelona are that level below. Atletico Madrid are resurgent but not the resilient force of almost a decade ago. Milan are, again, promising, but the problem is that they are in the most difficult group of all, along with PSG, Borussia Dortmund and Newcastle United.
It’s a particularly challenging group stage for Eddie Howe. He’s not just going to have to adapt to European football – although the modern game makes that far less drastic an adaptation than previous – but also the schedule European football involves. That will be sapping, even as the very theme ringing around St James Park will be invigorating.
It is likely to be the main source of suspense.
This European outing will also be fraught with emotional investment since there are many in football – and not just in England – willing Newcastle United to fail due to their owners. There remains a general disgruntlement about the summer, and how much the Saudi Pro League disrupted the game while still spending most of its money in the Premier League.
It has had the most disruptive effect on the European game since the expansion of the Champions League itself. The distortion that the competition’s own prize money has caused can’t be overlooked. It is central to its power.
That power is also why there is a widespread belief around the European game that the Saudi Pro League eventually want into the competition itself. Uefa are currently adamant it will not happen.
The prospect does hang there, though. It could be described as a point of no return, but there’s not exactly much prospect of going back to what football was.
This season marks a bit of a time capsule in that sense since it is also the last of 32 teams. Next year’s move to 36 might also be the last of the “top four” in the Premier League, as the competition’s coefficient strength could perpetually bring five qualifiers.
There is a tremendous amount of symbolism in how Napoli and Real Madrid meet in this last group stage. It was that very fixture, in 1987, that provoked Silvio Berlusconi into pushing for change to the old European Cup in the first place. It was that which led to the group stage, and a round that was for so long the “television spectacular” the Italian magnate wanted.
There are similar historical echoes in some other fixtures: United-Galatasaray, Arsenal-Lens, Barcelona-Shakhtar Donetsk.
None of them sound like what they used to be, though. There isn’t the same sporting peril. There are some potentially interesting stories, like Union Berlin or Real Sociedad, but most of the groups are fairly predictable. Those involving Arsenal, City and United actually look the worst for that.
The usual statement at this point would be that the competition always has the capacity to surprise, but that is, at this point, a hope, rather than an expectation.
There’s no longer much to be wistful about, other than what European football used to be. That is an issue that goes beyond the format of the group stage. For now, it means most have to wait beyond even the last-16 for true drama.