THE striking feature of the Champions League second round draw is that, unlike the men’s tournament, it gives title winners from Europe’s smaller nations a decent chance of reaching the new lucrative group stage.
That’s because, under the wickedly complicated new format, the early stages have a Champions Path and a League Path. Virtually every big club is part of the latter, having finished second or third last season behind teams that secured passes directly to the group stage.
Glasgow City may think they could have been associated with easier opposition than Servette in the Champions Path, but that means there will be a Scottish or Swiss representative among the 16 clubs guaranteed a minimum of £ 342,765 just to participate at the group stage of the competition.
This will also be the case for the Croatian Osijek or the Icelandic Breidablik. Neither would be immediately recognizable in football’s top circles, but the winner of their second-round draw will be up for a big win.
Juventus, who face Albanian champions Vllaznia, are the only side from the five traditional elite European leagues on the championship path. (Vllaznia, incidentally, plays at the atmospheric Loro Borici Stadium in Shkoder, where Scotland qualified for the 2019 World Cup.)
In contrast, eight of the 10 clubs involved in League Path second round matches belong to the top five nations.
Levante’s reward for beating Celtic and hosts Rosenborg in their first-round mini-tournament is a brace against seven-time Champions League winners Lyon, a record.
Real Madrid face Manchester City. And Bordeaux, qualified for a first Champions League under the direction of new Scottish coach Pedro Martinez Losa, will face the 2013 and 2014 winners of Wolfsburg.
There is nothing fundamentally unfair about this, of course. Levante and Bordeaux both finished third in their championship and are only participating in the tournament because it has been enlarged.
Fairness, however, is not what drives football at the highest level. The eccentric genius of Nyon who designed the new formula deserves credit for having ensured that at least six small national champion clubs will compete in the group stage. It is, after all, the “Champions” League.
However, and again like the men’s tournament, it will only be a matter of time before the rich and powerful decide that they have had enough of democracy.
While Glasgow City have reached the last 16 of the Champions League five times (and the quarter-finals twice), they will receive at least a five-fold raise on any previous cash prize if they beat Servette and step into next month’s group stage draw.
The first leg is in Geneva on Wednesday, with the home game in Broadwood on September 8. If the latter is as dramatic as the last time, the Scottish champions have faced a Swiss team.
In 2014, City faced FC Zurich in the round of 16, losing the first leg 2-1 despite a memorable goal from Fiona Brown. It was 2-2 on the night of the second leg at the Excelsior with just nine minutes left, but goals from Jo Love and Suzanne Lappin secured what appeared to be an impossible 5-4 overall victory.
It was, as Lee Alexander said a few days ago, an iconic performance for City. The goalkeeper, who had to wait another three years for her first Scottish selection, watched the second half from the sidelines. She broke her collarbone making a courageous and vital stop at the feet of a Zurich striker.
THE League Cup group matches will come to a close today, with three teams hoping to join Glasgow City, Aberdeen, Hibernian, Rangers and Celtic in the quarter-finals. Regardless of the actual results, there will be seven SWPL 1 clubs and one from SWPL 2 in the last eight.
The group matches were busy all month and, it must be said, did not start the season auspiciously. Forfar Farmington withdrew after just one game, while the results of two other draws on Opening Sunday had to be changed as Hearts and Partick Thistle fielded ineligible players.
The unsatisfactory nature of the group format continues today. St Johnstone have withdrawn from their game against Celtic as they are unable to field a team.
Injuries and a positive Covid test were cited in the SWF statement (Celtic taking a 3-0 win), but I understand that the Perth club’s issues run much deeper.
Yet another potentially worrying development with the Championship season, including SWPL 2 reduced to seven teams, starting next Sunday.