Year upon year it serves up thrilling two-legged ties, and Chelsea’s quarter-final against Real Madrid, which the Spanish side won after extra-time, certainly fell into that category. Of course there are duds too, but they only make you appreciate the belters even more, and there always seem to be plenty of them once Europe’s leading club competition reaches its business end.
It makes it even more of a pity it is hidden away on BT Sport in this country, not on ITV as it used to be in the early years of its rebranding – not even highlights.
The thrills of this stage of the competition only underline how disappointing the first half of the Champions League – as we are supposed to call a competition which is not just for champions and not decided by a league – can be too often.
Last week’s Premier League game between Manchester City and Liverpool was, like the reverse fixture, a cracker, but after 75 minutes of really entertaining football, the two sides settled down and decided not to risk losing. That cannot happen in knockout football. In Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final they will have no choice but to slug it out to the bitter end.
It might not be as good as last week, but only because the FA Cup, sadly, is bottom of both club’s remaining priorities for this season. Get them together in a Champions League final and it could be an all-time classic.
You might argue the filtering of teams through four-team groups is what produces such good knockout ties, but it certainly creates plenty of dead rubbers and a lack of jeopardy. More often than not, most groups are decided before the final round when games can often become fancy reserve team matches for some of the bigger squads.
So “to ensure the new 2024-25 (season) format will deliver the best for clubs, players and fans” what have Uefa come up with?
A more drawn-out league phase and no extra knockout matches.
In other words, they are delivering the best thing for the clubs – more money, a mixed blessing for the players – almost certainly more of that money, but more games into the bargain, and the fans can go do one.
Club accountants want as little knockout football as possible because a group stage of 10 matches per team means 10 guaranteed pay-days. No wonder the European Club Association, chaired by those guardians of all that is right about the game, Paris Saint Germain, unanimously voted it through.
It means more gets taken out of the legs of top players, diluting the quality of the knockout games but what the heck.
But are UEFA seriously telling us they have consulted supporters and come to the conclusion this is what “delivers the best” for them? Those people who protested against a European Super League and are now seeing the European Cup move yet another step further down that road?
A huge number of extra dead rubbers which they will no doubt have to buy Champions League season tickets for to ensure their seats for the games worth watching? Two more away trips to shell out for before we get to the knockouts? Get Out of Jail Free cards for underperforming clubs who are not good enough but have not big histories but a place in the status quo whilst more deserving sides performing here and now sit it out?
The brazenness of this revamp is shocking from an organisation in UEFA which was quick to saddle up its high horse this time last year when a European Super League was in the offing. Europe’s governing body has no objections whatsoever to a European Super League, they just object to someone else being able to milk it.
If it was about fans, the games would be on terrestrial television, the format would be sharper and the pitfalls much more ominous.
League football is the ultimate test of consistency and quality. The clubs that can churn out most points in all conditions against all styles of teams, who can ride out injury crises and see it through to the end deserve to call themselves champions. You just do not fluke league titles.
Rotherham United have been outstanding for so much of the League One campaign but will finish where they deserve to and if that means missing out on the title or even automatic promotion because they ran out of steam in the run-in, they can have no complaints. Hopefully it will not come to that.
Middlesbrough may be capable of beating Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, Huddersfield Town of defeating Fulham – who Barnsley ought to have beaten at Oakwell – but it is about 46 matches, not one or two.
But we have domestic leagues for that rigorous examination, the other competitions are about the thrill of knockout football, of freakish moments of luck and good or bad refereeing decisions turning games and knowing you only have a few minutes to do something about it, of being able to raise your game when it matters most.
The best team in Europe are not always the European champions, and that uncertainty makes these games worth watching.
It is a risky business and risks are not what you want when millions of your own pounds (or Euros) are at stake but if you are watching for entertainment, that is exactly what you want.
No one who loves football could have watched Tuesday’s match in the Bernabeu and not wanted more of that.
Those who run the European game and its richest clubs could.