To the 1,625 Liverpool fans travelling to Eindhoven to watch your team play in the Champions League against PSV tomorrow: I salute your dedication. Your team has already qualified for the knockout stages. There is no novelty factor because you have played PSV five times in the last two years. And the city itself offers approximately the same variety of nightlife as a Tuesday evening in Welwyn Garden City.
The Champions League group stages are back for one more round of matches and this time it is dragging like never before. Leaving aside Chelsea's fate – and let's be honest, having to beat CFR Cluj at home to qualify is not exactly the stuff of cliffhangers – this is the drabbest conclusion yet to a group stage that, results-wise has been as easy to predict as a North Korean general election.
As we come to the last week of the group stages only three of the 16 places in the knockout round are up for grabs. Two of those places are in Chelsea's group and the smart money says that it will be them and Roma. In Group B it is a straight battle between Panathinaikos and Anorthosis Famagusta for the second qualification spot behind Internazionale. It tells you something when, in the biggest club competition in the world, the most interesting game is the one taking place in Greece.
What else is there to play for? Finishing top of the group is not essential, as Liverpool proved in the 2004-05 group stages when they came second to Monaco in their group and still won the competition. Uefa might argue that there are still five Uefa Cup places up for grabs this week but it is a bit like saying there are still tickets available to see Paul Daniels in pantomime in Bridlington this month. Don't all rush at once.
The only surprise in this group stage is that Zenit St Petersburg have been so poor after beating Manchester United in the European Super Cup. No-one has stepped forward to challenge the hegemony of the same old teams ploughing towards the knockout round with so much certainty that we may as well have skipped the group stages and got the whole party over by Christmas.
When Nottingham Forest won their two European Cups in 1979 and 1980 they played nine games in each campaign, four fewer games than United did winning the competition last season. Forest never played the same team twice over the two years. They played against sides from eight different countries and every one of them apart from Liverpool in 1978 (who were at the time the European Cup holders) were champions of their domestic league. It might not have made it any more competitive than the current day, but it did make it more interesting.
Last season, United played six different sides (they faced Roma in the group stages and the quarter-finals) on their way to winning the Champions League and only two of them – Dynamo Kiev and Lyons – were domestic champions. But it's not just the meaningless games which have taken the adventure out of the modern Champions League. It is the same bland Uefa livery in every stadium. It is the happy-clappy devotion of Uefa officials to communicate the greatness of their competition who furnish us with such vitals facts as Luxembourg referee Alain Hamer's favourite hobbies ("animals, aviation and travelling", in case you were wondering).
When the draw was made on 28 August in Monaco I sat down in the press room and tried to figure out what the most interesting aspect of this draw was. Fernando Torres playing against Atletico Madrid? Debatable. United playing Villarreal again? Hardly. In the end, the conclusion was that the most interesting aspect of this draw was that Chelsea were playing a Romanian team from the birthplace of Monica and Gabriela Irimia, aka The Cheeky Girls.
Three months on and five matches into the competition, that might still be the most interesting fact about the group stages of the 2008-2009 Champions League. If Chelsea are eliminated by CFR Cluj tomorrow then the attendant publicity might just be strong enough to secure Monica and Gabriela a gig turning on the Christmas lights somewhere like Bridlington. Uefa, on the other hand, take it for granted that the crowds will keep rolling up to their main attraction.
Europe's No 1 diva hits new low
Cristiano Ronaldo substituted himself against Sunderland on Saturday, or rather he flounced off the pitch complaining about an injury. He let us know this by kicking the ball into touch (when United were in need of a goal), gesturing dismissively at the bench and heading straight for the tunnel.
It was a pretty remarkable liberty to take, even from the new European Footballer of the Year. On the bench, Sir Alex Ferguson's assistants were not yet ready to make a substitution and for a while United played with 10 men. Ronaldo seems to think that his status enables him to do whatever he likes and it was a pity that some of the United fans around the tunnel applauded him as he left. He behaved like the worst kind of diva and you have to worry that last night's award ceremony in Paris will only make the ego even larger.
Banking on passing the buck
The new Sunderland chief executive Steve Walton claims on his CV that he was "director of football at Barclays". That poses a few questions, the main one being: what do you make of a bank manager who goes around calling himself a "director of football"?
Perhaps "director of football" was just a euphemism for what it stands for in football, ie he makes a lot of the strategic decisions when it comes to appointing staff but when it all goes wrong takes none of the responsibility and insists someone else was to blame. It is a shame Walton never got to meet Roy Keane who would presumably have had a fairly strong opinion on bean-counters who like grandiose titles.
Ince junior leads next generation
The best goal of Liverpool's 2-1 victory over Leeds in the FA Youth Cup last Tuesday was a 25-yard free-kick struck by Tom Ince, the 16-year-old son of Paul. He is, by all accounts, quite some player. Ince junior alongside Jack Wilshere in the centre of England's midfield for the 2014 World Cup? It could be a throwback to the days when Ince senior played alongside Paul Gascoigne.Reuse content