The Blancos’ 6-1 away win at sorry Schalke was the latest example of the huge chasm between the top few clubs and those who are just happy to be in the knockout stage
By Kris Voakes | International Football Correspondent
We’ve all been there. You wait all week for the chance to play a big game for your local team, only to be completely outclassed and humiliated in an uncompetitive fixture.
But that feeling should be consigned largely to the public fields of the inner cities rather than being replicated at the very highest level as it was for Schalke players on Wednesday night. Their 6-1 home defeat to Real Madrid helped only to emphasise how far the top clubs are out of reach of those hoping to create an impression in the Champions League knockout stages.
The Gelsenkirchen outfit’s crushing inadequacy was clear for all to see, with Carlo Ancelotti’s charges finding it far too easy to pass their way through and around their hosts during the course of the 90 minutes. Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo all struck twice, and each could have netted more.
And while this was the most one-sided scoreline of the eight first-leg encounters, it provided further evidence that the Champions League round of 16 is not all it is cracked up to be. Schalke were the sixth of eight group runners-up to be beaten at home, with only Olympiakos overcoming their supposedly superior opponents – and even that could be debated given Manchester United’s form this season under David Moyes.
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The truth is that we spend much of the group stage watching the giants of the game toying with their opposition but telling ourselves that it is in the knockout stage that the real football starts. Then we are catered with non-contests like the one in Gelsenkirchen on Wednesday, or Bayer Leverkusen’s 4-0 submission to Paris Saint-Germain. Even Zenit St Petersburg were second-class citizens against Borussia Dortmund, with last season’s finalists twice upping their game as soon as the Russians had threatened to keep the tie alive.
Football has done a good job of adapting to circumstances in modern times. The Champions League replaced the European Cup format to cater for an audience craving football like never before, then Uefa toyed with its structure to attempt to find a more fan-friendly product. The number of clubs was increased, an extra group stage introduced and then ditched, as rounds were extended to give viewing access to more fixtures.
Now there must be a further change. The round of 16 needs to be abolished in order to make the competition more like the top-class product it is supposed to be and less like the walkover we so often see on local parks on a Sunday morning. The quarter-finals in April promise to be a magnificent showcase of the modern game at its very best, but why are we made to wait so long for the competition to come alive?
Uefa should look at results like Real Madrid’s, PSG’s and Dortmund’s, plus others – remember Barcelona’s 10-2 aggregate win over Leverkusen only two years ago? – and act accordingly. A longer qualification period and shortened group format should be seriously considered. If the group stage were to come in at a later point, not only would there be consistently more high-pressure, top-quality pool fixtures, there would also be fewer blow-outs when the knockout stage comes into view.
The ugly truth is that football does not have the depth of quality to serve the current Champions League set-up. When giants like Madrid face smaller sides like Schalke, there is no contest. At a stage when audiences should be at their most captivated, ties are instead being decided inside the first 20 minutes of the first leg.
Outside of Bayern Munich, Madrid and Barcelona, only perhaps PSG have a right to call themselves a contender, and beyond the English contingent and Atletico Madrid there is very little in the way of competition for even top-eight status, let alone the title itself.
“It was a s**t game,” admitted Schalke boss Jens Keller after the battering by the Blancos. “We started well until we conceded the first goal. Then we made error after error and a team like Real Madrid exploit that without any mercy.”
Keller better get ready for more of the same at the Santiago Bernabeu in three weeks’ time.
Because, lest we forget, we have more of this to come. Over two midweeks in March, we will all sit back and absorb more of what is supposed to be Europe’s greatest sporting product, but in only two of the eight ties is there even the slightest hope of a contest. It is the ever-increasing way of Champions League knockout football and the trend needs to be bucked before we all start turning off.
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