It seems like only yesterday when the Champion’s League group stages were routinely written off as solely a money-making exercise; a formality that always saw the two highest seeded clubs progress with the minimum of fuss and usually a maximum of points. Mismatches were commonplace and consequently interest plummeted as we all waited for the knockout rounds to pair European giant versus European giant, clashes rife with intrigue and resplendent with superstars.
Now though, in an unexpected development that benefits us all, things seem to be changing with the group stages throwing up a number of surprise results in recent years. Which begs the question: is the gap between the continental elite and teams previously regarded as minnows – despite being champions of their respective leagues – beginning to close?
Certainly the past week suggests so. On Tuesday Bayern Munich were held at home while CSKA Moscow pulled off the major coup of besting Real Madrid. Over in southwest Germany meanwhile Hoffenheim – a club that only turned professional this century – came within a whisker of holding Manchester City to a draw, a result that would have seen the Premier League champions languishing bottom of Group F after two games.
Last season’s group stages saw little-fancied Besiktas top their mini-league with 14 points while Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk both progressed to the last 16, the latter finishing with double the points of a formidable Napoli side that ran Juventus so close in Serie A. Returning to the present a roll-call of group leaders hardly contains a household name with the likes of CSKA, Lyon and Porto proudly heading their fields.
The reasons for this are numerous but mostly involve money. Though the familiar stellar institutions will always amass eye-watering sums through revenue and sponsorship deals regular participation in the lucrative tournament for ‘second tier’ clubs has afforded them the chance to catch up to an extent, assembling squads of genuine quality from talent far and wide. And what this means for us – the fans – is that betting on the Champions League just got very interesting.
So clear-cut were the outcomes in times past that many of us resorted to going niche – concentrating our attention on score-lines and first goal-scorers. Now, looking ahead to matchday three later this month, can anyone say for certain that Shakhtar aren’t capable of getting something in their hosting of Manchester City? Or PSV Eindhoven at home to Spurs?
The chasm that used to exist in the Champions League is becoming a leapable hurdle and that makes things a whole lot more fun for all of us, especially with terrific offers and free bets available. Where once the group stages prompted a collective yawn there is now an unpredictability that excites.