The Champions League is a group stage sprint; marathon to the final


GENEVA (AP) — In an unusual season for European football, the World Cup in Qatar has split the Champions League into a sprint and a marathon.

The group stage kicks off on Tuesday and compresses six rounds of matches into eight full weeks, with the final group matches on November 2.

The congestion is caused by the shutdown of top-flight European football during a World Cup which is played from November 20 to December 20. 18 in the coldest months of Qatar.

In a normal season, teams never play Champions League games for consecutive weeks and the group stage would run until mid-December.

This time, the Champions League games are held in three separate back-to-back series in midweek to ensure the groups are completed before many players are called up for national team service.

For teams off to a poor start in the domestic leagues, the Champions League offers no respite with two games by September 14 to set the tone in each of the eight groups.

“You can only enjoy the Champions League when things are going well in the (domestic) league,” Leipzig coach Domenico Tedesco said on Saturday after his side’s 4-0 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. . Leipzig host Shakhtar Donetsk in Group F on Tuesday and will face defending champions Real Madrid next week.

Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen – who have lost four of their five Bundesliga games – and Sevilla, winless and 16th in the Spanish league, all start the Champions League game from the bottom half of their domestic table. Sevilla have the toughest, hosting Manchester City in Group G on Tuesday. Leverkusen travel to Club Brugge in Group B on Wednesday.

The schedule offers little time to sort things out but plenty of time to reflect later during a mid-season break from competition that will last over three months. On February 14, the Champions League resumes with a knockout phase lasting nearly four months.

The June 10 final is the last ever scheduled – excluding the 2020 season delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic – since the inaugural European Cup title was decided on June 13, 1956.

It all boils down to a 59-day group stage and then a 220-day wait before the trophy is awarded to Istanbul.

How a team can maintain form between the two phases is among the particular challenges of this unprecedented schedule.

Man City currently look like a juggernaut, fueled by new signing Erling Haaland’s 10 goals in their first six Premier League games, and favored by many for a maiden Champions League title.

Still, one unknown is the impact on the Norwegian striker of an enforced six-week break from competitive matches while most of Haaland’s club team-mates play a physically and emotionally taxing World Cup.

Even in a normal season, when the Champions League round of 16 would take place in mid-December, club leaders in the draw at UEFA headquarters would refuse to brag about being paired with an opponent then under -performing at the national level. The accepted wisdom is that the version of the opponent you see in December may not be the one you get when the two-legged series plays out in February and March.

That’s even truer this time when the draw for the Round of 16 takes place on November 7 at UEFA’s lakeside headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.

The World Cup is a huge mid-season commitment for many key players, and the January transfer window, when teams can top up their rosters, is expected to be more volatile. The first commercial period after a World Cup is often fueled by demand for less advertised players who have stood out on the world stage.

Whatever stories the Champions League tells in this group stage from Tuesday onwards, seeing the bigger picture seems a long way off.


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