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Last ever Champions League group stage starts as Man City defend title

New-look event will begin next year, number of clubs increases from 32 to 36

September 19, 2023 00:00:00

Paris Saint-Germain's French forward Kylian Mbappe reacting during a training session at Poissy, west of Paris on September Monday, on the eve of their UEFA Champions League Matchday 1 football match against Borussia Dortmund today (Tuesday) — AFP

PARIS, Sept 18 (AFP): Manchester City begin their defence of the Champions League on Tuesday when the group stage kicks off in the last season in its current format as Europe's elite club competition gets ready for a radical change.

Unveiled by UEFA in 2021 at the height of the crisis which saw a group of 12 clubs announce a breakaway Super League before promptly abandoning the project, the new-look Champions League will begin next year.

It will see the number of clubs involved in the competition proper increase from 32 to 36, with all participants going into a single league in which teams will play eight games -- up from the current six -- in what is known as the "Swiss system".

This is therefore the last campaign, after two decades, in which the Champions League will begin with a group stage featuring eight sections of four teams, with the top two in each advancing to the last 16.

"We are convinced that the format chosen strikes the right balance and that it will improve competitive balance," said Aleksander Ceferin, the president of European football's governing body, when the changes to the Champions League were confirmed in May last year.

The format that is on its way out was brought in for the 2003/04 season, ending an experiment with a second group stage.

In terms of symmetry and simplicity it cannot be bettered, with half the teams advancing from the group stage to the last 16.

But this is an era in which major club and international competitions keep expanding. In addition, there has been a recognition that the Champions League group stage has gone somewhat stale.

The financial gulf between the continent's most powerful clubs and the rest is growing all the time, accentuated in particular by the decision to award a portion of prize money based on the position of teams in UEFA's own club ranking.

That means the team placed at number one gets over 36 million euros ($38.4m) just for being the top-ranked side, with the amount dropping progressively so the lowest-ranked team receive only just over one million euros.

Even at this elite level, there are plenty of teams who are doing little more than make up the numbers, albeit while being handsomely rewarded.

PSG have never won the Champions League. The 2022/23 elimination at the hands of Bayern makes it now 15 times in the competition without winning, including the previous 11 tournaments in a row.

Paris Saint-Germain have undergone sweeping changes over the summer ahead of their latest bid for Champions League glory, but new coach Luis Enrique insists the Qatar-owned club will not make winning European football's biggest prize an obsession this season.

PSG host Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday in their first match in a heavyweight Champions League group which also features AC Milan and Newcastle United.

The French title-holders have endured one frustration after another in the competition in recent years, with a defeat by Bayern Munich last season seeing them go out of the Champions League in the last 16 for the fifth time in seven years.

It is hard to imagine Swiss side Young Boys or Serbia's Red Star Belgrade making a big impact alongside Pep Guardiola's City and RB Leipzig in Group G.

City should stroll through to the last 16, racking up goals in the process, and they begin as favourites to retain a trophy they won in June by beating Inter Milan 1-0 in the final in Istanbul.

That success saw City finally win the competition they had been chasing since the Abu Dhabi-led takeover of 2008 that transformed the club.

"This project is to want more, more ambition," said Spanish midfielder Rodri after scoring the winner for City in last season's final.

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