It has become an annual cliche. Once the Champions League knockout rounds come around, a pundit -- usually Graeme Souness -- will roll out his view that "this is where the tournament really starts." It is a wholly supportable opinion. There are significant grounds to suggest that the competition's latter stages are the highest grade of football available on the planet -- better than the World Cup, even.
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What comes before is far less loved and lauded. While autumn turns to winter, a Champions League treadmill begins. For many, the thrill is gone.
The group stages have become an unloved beast. Listeners to radio in London will have heard adverts flogging tickets for Chelsea's Wednesday night game with FC Basel. At time of writing, Manchester United versus Bayer Leverkusen had not sold out either. Face value is freely available.
For both clubs' fans, familiarity has bred apathy, despite the significance of David Moyes' first match in the competition and the romance of Jose Mourinho's return. United have been in the competition every season since the summer of 1996 and only twice failed to make it past the group stages. Last season's disaster was Chelsea's first failure to make it past the turn of the year. The same old teams are present, correct and expected to progress.
It was not always thus. The late 1990s saw the group stages deliver remarkable matches year on year. After the gates were opened to domestic runners-up in the summer of 1997, the standard actually got even higher. Both the 1997-98 and 1998-99 tournaments were full of thrilling twists and turns.
In those days, only the group winners were guaranteed qualification for the last eight. Juventus, eventual finalists, finished second to Manchester United in their 1997-98 group but went through as just one of two "lucky losers," who had gathered the most points of the six runners-up.
The following year, United qualified for the last eight by the same means. They did so after playing out a group stage that lingers long in the memory despite it being the prelude to that season's eventual treble triumph. A pair of 3-3 draws with Barcelona were absolute classics, while eventual final opponents Bayern Munich were held to two draws, too.
In their final group game at Old Trafford, United and Bayern staged something of a détente, knowing that their 1-1 scoreline would take both into the quarterfinals and deny Barcelona. While being interviewed postmatch, Gary Neville asked ITV's Gary Newbon: "Did Juventus qualify?" An affirmative answer produced a hangdog Neville grimace. The excitement of discovering who was going through had lasted until the final minutes of the group stage.
Yet the formula had already been messed with. The summer of 1998 had seen UEFA forced to head off the threat of Media Partners, a shadowy but seemingly credible organisation that was working towards a European "Super League." It led to the Champions League further defying the Trades Descriptions Act with the admittance of third- and fourth-placed teams from major countries and runners-up from others.
The tournament became bloated to the point of bursting the golden egg. Instead of one group stage came two, which meant an eventual winner had to play at least 17 matches before being crowned -- almost half a domestic season. It was all as laboriously labyrinthine as the latter-day Europa League. The second group stage was eventually removed after the 2002-03 season, a move popular with fans but not the major clubs themselves, who had reaped the benefits of three extra home games and attendant further TV revenue.
Clubs like the certainty of the revenues that a group stage garners them. Many are geared financially around it. Romantics want the return of knockouts throughout the competition but the business of modern football will forever preclude that.
"I think all the big clubs would have preferred to keep the second stage of the Champions League," United chief executive David Gill said in September 2004. "There was a higher quality of opposition in the second group phase than the first one and that is something that needs to be looked at. Last season's final between Porto and Monaco was possibly caused by the impact of the revised format."
Mourinho's Porto had knocked out United on the way, while Monaco had removed both Real Madrid and Chelsea. Clearly no incurable football romantic who likes to see the little man succeed, Gill's fears were not realised. These days, finals are usually between the continent's major clubs and not surprise packages who have upset the aristocracy. Borussia Dortmund, despite being double German champions before the 2012-13 campaign, were treated as some kind of renegade force when they reached Wembley.
A further variable was added by Michel Platini's push to widen participating countries by dividing the final qualification round into champions and those who had finished third or fourth in the major leagues. Thus did teams like BATE Borisov, Unirea Urziceni and Anorthosis Famagusta become players on the big stage. The policy proved quite the vote winner for Platini the politician.
Yet despite the fiddlings with formula, the group stage is not quite the desolate procession that many have chosen to label it. Both Manchester clubs perished before Christmas in the 2011-12 campaign. Last season, City and Chelsea suffered similar fates, with the latter putting up the worst ever holders' defence in the Champions League era by finishing behind Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk.
And then there have been adventures like that of Celtic last season beating Barcelona and going through, or Cyprus' APOEL reaching the 2011-12 quarterfinals. Even in a competition designed to fill the pockets of the elite, surprises are still possible. Newcomers like Tottenham Hotspur in 2010-11 can enjoy the ride, too. They have hankered to return ever since.