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Platini plan for Champions League takes shape

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Phil Minshull | 20:20 UK time, Monday, 13 September 2010

Looking at the groups for this season's Champions League tournament you might think that it's business as usual for the main contenders from England, Spain and Italy.

There's no denying that Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United and the two Milan teams once again feature among the favourites.

However, look again and look a bit more closely.

A few of the usual suspects are missing and the Champions League appears to finally be fulfilling Uefa boss Michel Platini's ambition for the competition to become just a little more open, democratic and, dare I say it, exciting and unpredictable.

Inter fans celebrate their Champions League final win over Bayern Munich - photo: Getty

Inter fans had much to celebrate in Europe last season - photo: Getty

Liverpool and Porto - both Champions League winners in the last decade - are in the Europa League, joining the flawed Italian giants Juventus who have been finalists three times in Europe's top tournament since they last won the trophy in 1996.

Further down the pecking order - from among the top 20 most successful teams in the history of the Champions League - Borussia Dortmund, PSV Eindhoven and Olympiakos also didn't make the group stages of the continent's biggest club competition this time around.

Only a dozen of teams that made the group stages last season, including Barca, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Manchester United and the two Milan teams, have done it again 12 months later.

Six teams - Portugal's Braga, Turkey's Bursaspor, Israel's Hapoel Tel-Aviv, Dutch champions Twente Enschede, Slovakia's MSK Zilina as well as Spurs - appear at this stage of the competition for the very first time while England is the only country to have four teams still in contention.

This year, 18 countries are represented among the 32 teams at this stage, meaning that while the likes of FC Copenhagen and Zilina will be gallantly flying the flag for Denmark and Slovakia, and aiming just to nick a few points off the next weakest member of their groups, namely Panathinaikos and Spartak Moscow, there is every chance of a few unusual names cropping up in the last 16.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that they can go all the way and inherit the trophy Jose Mourinho's Inter lifted in May but I'm quietly wondering what Benfica and Braga can do.

Braga looked impressive in eliminating Celtic and then Sevilla to get their place in a group alongside Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk and Partizan Belgrade.

It has been six years since Porto won the Champions League so maybe it's time for another good run from a Portuguese team.

Another potential candidate to provide a few shocks could be Russian champions Rubin Kazan, with Barcelona fans needing no reminding of how useful they can be on their day.

Rubin beat Barca 2-1 in the Camp Nou and held the then European champions to a 0-0 draw in Kazan and they also gave Inter a run for their money last year. A year on, and with a year's more experience under their belts, Kurban Berdyev's cosmopolitan squad - consisting of 15 different nationalities - could cause some surprises again.

As luck would have it, Kazan have been drawn against Barcelona again but this time have got the less awe-inspiring FC Copenhagen and Panathanaikos in their group - so a place in the last 16 could beckon for the first time.

With the likes of Braga and Kazan capable of, at least occasionally, upsetting the old order, perhaps it is worth revisiting the question of whether the Champions League should, as many fans would like it to, revert to being a knock-out competition right the way through the season.

Sadly, it looks like the clock will never be turned back, as much as I and many others would like it to be.

Inter forward Diego Milito and Uefa president Michel Platini at the Champions League draw - photo: AP

Inter forward Diego Milito and Uefa president Michel Platini at the Champions League draw - photo: AP

I can't believe Uefa boss Michel Platini would ever contemplate returning to the system that existed in the old days of the European Cup, when the knock-out competition consisted solely of league champions as well as the holders if they had failed to qualify via their own domestic league.

Ever since the 1997-98 season, when the then Uefa president Lennart Johansson allowed league runners-up to contest the Champions League, top clubs had a backdoor into the lucrative competition, with the format fiddled around seemingly for the benefit of Europe's giants.

Despite what words Platini may utter and how he manages to make dents in the power of Europe's top clubs, like when he cleverly engineered the disbanding of the G14 group a few years ago, or his efforts to bring financial order and transparency, too many vested interests, mean that there are unlikely to be any radical changes in the structure of the Champions League.

It's not surprising that neither Uefa nor the clubs are particularly committed to any changes which might make the Champions League more entertaining in its early rounds.

Last season Inter pocketed nearly £41m from Uefa alone after winning the Champions League, and that was before local tickets sales or the boost from merchandising were considered.

Surprise finalists Bayern - c'mon it was a surprise, after all they were the first German team in eight years to reach the final and the first team to break the stranglehold that English, Spanish and Italian clubs have had on the final since Porto beat Monaco in 2004 - got just £4m less than Inter.

Any suggestion that Uefa or the major clubs are likely to float proposals that will bring about major change that would add a bit of serious spice to the Champions League before Christmas brings to mind the old saying about turkeys voting for that particular holiday.

Comments on this blog in the space below. Other questions on European football to: I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.

Q) I would just like to know what you think about Valencia for the upcoming season?

Wheeler MacIntyre, Thurso, Scotland.

A ) This question arrived a week ago and it seems to follow on from one that I answered last month when I wrote: "The sale of the two Davids, Villa and Silva can't have anything but a negative effect on the club. I can't see them repeating their third place of last year, which was astonishingly achieved against the backdrop of huge debts which are currently estimated to be around £417m".

Well, they have got maximum points in La Liga from their first two outings but I still stand by my original comments. Despite beating Racing Santander 1-0 at the weekend, they had a terrible first half and only salvaged a win thanks to Maduro popping up at the 'wrong' end of the field to head a goal. When a team has to rely on the 39-year-old goalkeeper Cesar Sanchez to bale them out at the back, things don't look so rosy in the long term. It will be interesting to see how they do in the Champions League and they have a potentially tricky trip to start with to Turkish side Bursapor on Tuesday.

Q) What do you think about Belgian sensation Romelu Lukaku? Do you see him making a move to a European giant this winter?

Ahad Shaukat, Karachi, Pakistan

A) I'm not sure whether it will be this winter or next summer but a move for the 17-year-old Anderlecht wonderkid appears to be on the cards very soon. Newspapers across Europe have linked his name in the last week with Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Aston Villa, Everton, and Newcastle United so it is up to him, his family and his representatives to decide where he would most likely find first-team football and/or make the most money. If the rumour machine is to be believed, Arsenal and Chelsea are apparently ahead of the pack in the race to sign the teenage striker, who has been rated at around £15m. In August, Lukaku said publicly that he wanted to stay with Anderlecht this season and play in the Champions League but with his side going out to Partizan Belgrade in the qualifiers his opinion might have changed.


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