Champions' League: Focus switches from quantity to quality

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The Independent Football

Like half the country, the Champions' League has taken to the Atkins Diet, adopting a high-protein regime of fewer games while cutting down on the starch.

This season, the race for the European Cup will be less of a league and more of a knock-out. Despite the fact that the big G14 clubs lobbied to retain the second group phase of the competition, Uefa, the governing body of European football, remarkably voted to scrap it. The format which existed from 1994-2000 has thus been reinstated; a single group stage and then a straight knock-out.

Even Uefa had come to recognise that their premier club competition was now bloated and unwieldy. When Cesare Maldini lifted the European Cup for Milan in 1963 it had taken 57 games, including a preliminary stage, to determine the continent's finest side. By the time his son, Paolo, held the European Cup aloft in Manchester 40 years later, 100 more matches, not including preliminaries, had been added.

And on television, familiarity with Des Lynam was breeding, if not contempt, then indifference. ITV was delighted when 10.6m watched Manchester United's quarter-final with Real Madrid, their best figures for three years, but it was five million fewer than had seen Alex Ferguson's side win the trophy in Barcelona in 1999. "Audience fragmentation" Uefa called it and you could see why. Last season, Manchester United and Milan each played four games which were entirely meaningless, since they had already qualified for the next phase of the competition.

The slimmed-down Champions' League should force this kind of stodge off the screen and should also ensure that no team can emulate Juventus, who last season came within a penalty shoot-out of becoming champions of Europe after having lost five times in the competition.

In a month when the Premier League is basking in the news that it takes in more money than any of its rivals across Europe, it may start to wonder why it has only won the European Cup once and that in fortuitous circumstances. They have done no better than the Dutch or the French and worse than the Germans. Naturally, the Spanish and Italians are way ahead.

Manchester United remain English football's best hope. Last season's quarter-final with Real Madrid was more of a match to determine the best team in Europe than the grim, defensive affair between Milan and Juventus ever was. Arsenal have never made it past the quarter-finals in their history and seem too preoccupied with other matters to start now while Chelsea's rouble-fuelled machine will take time to find its feet. Newcastle might do anything from the embarrassing to the remarkable.

Naturally, all eyes and cameras will be on Real Madrid, a team that sacked their manager for winning the league but losing a European Cup semi-final, and who now boast the captains of England, Spain and France. It will be dressed up as David Beckham's grail quest but, in truth, the defensive frailties which undermined Real in Turin have not been addressed while the three other Spanish clubs to have qualified lack pedigree in the competition. There is no Barcelona and no Valencia.

Frankly, it would surprise few to see a rerun of last season's European Cup when Serie A, which was supposed to have been totally eclipsed by the Premiership and La Liga, provided three of the four semi-finalists. The Italians are back, but you pray they will provide a better final than the stultifying stalemate at Old Trafford.


Automatic qualifiers to the Group Stage:

Arsenal; Bayern Munich; Besiktas; PSV Eindhoven; Internazionale; Juventus; Lyon; Real Madrid; Manchester United; Milan; Monaco; Olympiakos; Panathinaikos; Porto; Real Sociedad; Stuttgart.

Plus the winners of the following games:

Dynamo Zagreb v Dynamo Kiev; Celta Vigo v Slavia Prague; Grazer AK v Ajax; Zilina v Chelsea; Anderlecht v Wisla Krakow; Rosenborg v Deportivo La Coruña; Vardar v Sparta Prague; MTK Budapest v Celtic; Rangers v Copenhagen; Austria Vienna v Marseilles; Bruges v Borussia Dortmund; Shakhtar Donetsk v Lokomotiv Moscow; Lazio v Benfica; Grasshopper Zurich v AEK Athens; Partizan Belgrade v Newcastle United; Galatasaray v CSKA Moscow.


Final qualifying round, Second leg: 26-27 August.

Matchday one: 16-17 September.

Matchday two: 30 September to 1 August.

Matchday three: 21-22 October.

Matchday four: 4-5 November.

Matchday five: 25-26 November.

Matchday six: 9-10 December.

Second round first leg: 24-25 February.

Second round second leg: 9-10 March.

Quarter-finals first leg: 23-24 March.

Quarter-finals second leg: 6-7 April.

Semi-finals first leg: 20-21 April.

Semi-finals second leg: 4-5 May.

Final (in Gelsenkirchen, Germany): 26 May.