With the Champions League Knockout stages rapidly approaching and the first legs of the Carabao Cup semi-finals having been played over the past couple of days, now is an ideal to time to discuss the fixture styles in these competitions. There’s so many factors to consider that it’s very difficult to conclusively say the current formats are or are not working effectively, but we’ll try our best.
The largest club competition in world football, the Champions League, is probably a good place to start. Whether you like the group stage format or not, it’s something that would be very difficult to change. It’s different to international competitions like the World Cup or Euros in that it isn’t held in a neutral location meaning, in order for it to be fair, every teams has to be allowed the advantage of playing at home. Therefore, every team will always play six fixtures rather than 3. The real argument begins when it comes to the knockouts.
Again, to maintain fairness there will always need to be a home and away leg. The only area that is really up for discussion is the away goals rule. It’s common knowledge that playing away from home is generally more difficult, so it is logical that scoring as the away team should come with greater reward. However, completely scrapping this rule would arguably have a number of benefits. Whilst it can lead to extremely exciting encounters, the memorable 2017 tie between Barcelona and PSG being the perfect example, it can also completely kill off a tie just as, if not more often. There’s also some people who believe that this rule gives one team from each tie an advantage depending on the draw. Of course, it’s quite hard to see how this can be possible when both teams get to play at home, but even so, there’s some that do believe being drawn to play at home first, for example, does have its benefits. The point isn’t that I’m trying to agree or disagree with this, it’s that removing the away goals would completely end any claims that one team has an advantage, and we could truly say whichever team won was the better side. In truth, the away goals rule is somewhat an unnecessary one.
Moving on to domestic football, the Carabao cup is worth mentioning next, with the semi-finals having been played so recently. Whilst we’ve already pointed out that a two-leg system is more fair, it’s not possible to use this in every competition due to issues like fixture congestion, so less significant competitions like the Carabao and FA Cups are always going to include home advantage. This is up until the semi-finals in both competitions. This round in the Carabao Cup is the only one that consists of two legs which, again, seems slightly unnecessary. This is particularly the case when the first leg is like that of last night; Man City beat Burton 9-0 pretty much making the second leg completely pointless. Yes, this isn’t always the case with the other semi between Tottenham and Chelsea showing that two legs can lead to a more tactical encounter. Spurs really prioritised defending knowing they’d be taking a one goal advantage to Stamford Bridge. Yet, it could be argued that they would’ve done this anyway if it were a one off fixture knowing a 1-0 win would secure them a place in the final.
A cup semi-final is always going to be a big game. Consequently, there may be worries that it would be wrong to give one side such a great advantage by allowing them to play at home in a one off match on such a great occasion. If that’s the case, would it not be possible to play the semi-final and final in a neutral stadium, the same as the FA Cup? The rules on how frequently Wembley can be used isn’t common knowledge to most football fans, but it isn’t normally used for much football, at least, around this time of year. English football is in the unique position that Tottenham currently use the national stadium for their home matches whilst their new stadium is being developed. However, this was never an issue before but League Cup semi-finals have still always been across two legs. There may well be some understandable reason as to why this can’t happen, but currently it’s difficult to see why the semi-finals of this competition can’t just be single games held at Wembley.
The FA Cup is also different to the Carabao cup in that rounds before the semi-final and final go to a replay rather than penalties if they end in a draw. This is another system which can be endlessly debated as to whether it needs to be changed. Fixture congestion is always going to be one of the main reasons for people wanting to get rid of this rule. It’s fair to see why; it’s not just the top Premier League sides playing in Europe who struggle with the number of games. All the teams below the Premier League play a total of 46 league games. This along with cup games can mean that they end up playing even more matches than those teams playing in Europe. Scrapping the use of replays would potentially benefit the players and staff more but not so much the spectators. Replays mean more matches which is always going to please keen football fans. Not only this, but getting rid of replays may mean that the beauty of the FA Cup could partially be lost, for the lower league teams in particular. Smaller clubs dream of travelling to one of England’s biggest clubs and causing an upset; if they’ve performed so well that they held huge opponents to a draw then they should be rewarded with the opportunity to do this. Trips like this are a huge occasion and something that would greatly benefit the club. Perhaps this is one thing that makes keeping this rule more sensible than certain rules mentioned for the other competitions.
As you can probably see by now, there’s all sorts of pros and cons when discussing the layout of competitions in football. It essentially comes down to which of these factors the individual believes to be the most important, it’s personal preference. One thing that everyone can agree on is that alterations to entire competitions don’t come easily. In truth, changes aren’t very likely and if they are going to happen, they aren’t going to happen quickly.