Manchester City begin their defence of the Champions League on Tuesday when the group stage kicks off in the last season in its current format as Europe’s elite club competition gets ready for a radical change. Unveiled by UEFA in 2021 at the height of the crisis which saw a group of 12 clubs announce a breakaway Super League before promptly abandoning the project, the new-look Champions League will begin next year.
It will see the number of clubs involved in the competition proper increase from 32 to 36, with all participants going into a single league in which teams will play eight games — up from the current six — in what is known as the “Swiss system”.
This is therefore the last campaign, after two decades, in which the Champions League will begin with a group stage featuring eight sections of four teams, with the top two in each advancing to the last 16.
“We are convinced that the format chosen strikes the right balance and that it will improve competitive balance,” said Aleksander Ceferin, the president of European football’s governing body, when the changes to the Champions League were confirmed in May last year.
The format that is on its way out was brought in for the 2003/04 season, ending an experiment with a second group stage.
In terms of symmetry and simplicity it cannot be bettered, with half the teams advancing from the group stage to the last 16.
But this is an era in which major club and international competitions keep expanding. In addition, there has been a recognition that the Champions League group stage has gone somewhat stale.
The financial gulf between the continent’s most powerful clubs and the rest is growing all the time, accentuated in particular by the decision to award a portion of prize money based on the position of teams in UEFA’s own club ranking.
That means the team placed at number one gets over 36 million euros ($38.4m) just for being the top-ranked side, with the amount dropping progressively so the lowest-ranked team receive only just over one million euros.
Even at this elite level, there are plenty of teams who are doing little more than make up the numbers, albeit while being handsomely rewarded.
It is hard to imagine Swiss side Young Boys or Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade making a big impact alongside Pep Guardiola’s City and RB Leipzig in Group G.
City should stroll through to the last 16, racking up goals in the process, and they begin as favourites to retain a trophy they won in June by beating Inter Milan 1-0 in the final in Istanbul.
That success saw City finally win the competition they had been chasing since the Abu Dhabi-led takeover of 2008 that transformed the club.
“This project is to want more, more ambition,” said Spanish midfielder Rodri after scoring the winner for City in last season’s final.
So who can stop them?
It surely will not be the champions of Switzerland or Serbia, or a Leipzig team who lost their star defender, Josko Gvardiol, to City during the close season.
Record 14-time winners Real Madrid are always contenders in the Champions League, although Carlo Ancelotti’s team find themselves in a difficult group alongside Napoli, Braga and newcomers Union Berlin.
Both of their seasons will be defined, as ever, by their performances in the Champions League.
Arsenal will hope to make an impression on their return to the Champions League for the first time since 2016/17, while Saudi ownership has propelled Newcastle United back into the competition after two decades away.
However, they find themselves in a section along with PSG, AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund.
UEFA might have been less inclined to change the format of the Champions League format if their competition featured groups like that more often.
“It’s hard and challenging but I think there’s some great European games for us to experience and great places to visit for our supporters,” said the Newcastle manager Eddie Howe after the draw.
His team begin away to seven-time European champions Milan on Tuesday.