Manchester City initiates their Champions League title defense this Tuesday, marking the final season under the current format before a significant overhaul of Europe’s premier club competition.
Introduced by UEFA in 2021 amid the Super League controversy, the revamped Champions League will launch next year. The alterations will expand the number of participating clubs from 32 to 36, engaging in a unified league system with each team playing eight matches (up from the current six) in the “Swiss system.”
Consequently, this campaign concludes a two-decade era in which the Champions League group stage consisted of eight groups, each comprising four teams, with the top two from each group progressing to the knockout stage.
Aleksander Ceferin, the president of European football’s governing body, expressed confidence in the chosen format, believing it strikes an optimal balance and enhances competitive equilibrium when the changes were confirmed in May last year.
The outgoing format, implemented for the 2003/04 season, is notably symmetrical and straightforward, with half of the teams advancing from the group stage to the round of 16. However, the current climate witnesses a continual expansion of major club and international competitions. Moreover, there’s a growing acknowledgment that the Champions League group stage has become somewhat predictable.
The financial disparity between the continent’s powerhouse clubs and others is continuously widening, particularly due to the allocation of prize money based on teams’ positions in UEFA’s club ranking. This system grants the top-ranked team over 36 million euros, while the lowest-ranked team receives just over one million euros.
Even within this elite tier, numerous teams are essentially participating to fill slots, albeit with substantial compensation.
It’s improbable to envision Swiss side Young Boys or Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade making a significant impact alongside teams like Pep Guardiola’s City and RB Leipzig in Group G. City is anticipated to progress comfortably to the round of 16, likely accumulating numerous goals along the way, and they enter as favorites to defend the title they secured in June by defeating Inter Milan 1-0 in the final in Istanbul.
This victory marked a pivotal moment for City, a culmination of the transformation initiated by the Abu Dhabi-led takeover in 2008.
The question now arises: who can pose a challenge to them?
It’s unlikely to be the champions of Switzerland or Serbia, or even a Leipzig team that lost their star defender, Josko Gvardiol, to City during the offseason. Real Madrid, boasting a record 14-time championship, perennially stand as contenders in the Champions League, although Carlo Ancelotti’s squad faces a challenging group alongside Napoli, Braga, and newcomers Union Berlin.
Bayern Munich has bolstered their attack with the acquisition of Harry Kane, while Paris Saint-Germain, despite losing Neymar and Lionel Messi, have retained Kylian Mbappe and strengthened around him. Both clubs’ seasons will, as usual, be defined by their Champions League performances.
Arsenal, making their return to the Champions League after a hiatus since 2016/17, and Newcastle United, propelled back into the competition after two decades, face formidable challenges in their respective groups alongside the likes of PSG, AC Milan, and Borussia Dortmund.
If UEFA’s competition consistently featured groups of this caliber, they might have been less inclined to alter the Champions League format. Newcastle’s manager Eddie Howe acknowledged the challenge ahead but also expressed excitement for the European matches and destinations that lie ahead for their supporters. His team kicks off against seven-time European champions Milan on Tuesday.