In the updated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the entry for Earth was changed from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless”. I’ll take a page out of that book and update the importance of Champions League Group Stage games from “Meaningless” to “Mostly Meaningless”.
ehfTV Commentator Tom O’Brannigain wrote an interesting commentary a while back taking issue with a German blogger Sascha Staat’s characterization of the Group Stage of the EHF Champions League as meaningless. Staat’s commentary pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between placing 1st or 6th place, rendering many of the matches meaningless. And, that this was particularly true for the German clubs that had to cope with the more competitive Bundesliga (HBL) while clubs like Barca and Kielce could coast along in their easy national leagues.
O’Brannigain, counterpoint was that it sure didn’t seem that way from his viewpoint watching the hotly contested matches. He also pointed out that except for last season, the HBL has largely been dominated by Kiel.
Staat has followed up with a counterpoint which I largely agree with. I hadn’t seen it, though until I was mostly finished with this commentary. I’ll amplify some key points though as to why the matches are mostly meaningless, but still quite entertaining.
Round of 16 (if seeded after 5 rounds)
First off, as a reference point let’s take a look at what the Round of 16 matchups would be today after just 5 rounds of group play. Below are the pairings and how the teams would be grouped for quarterfinal matches. (Barca and Kielce are in first place in Groups A and B respectively, so they would both get a bye to the Quarterfinals.)
Barca (A1) Bye
Szeged (B4) vs Flensburg (A5)
Kielce (B1) Bye
Veszprem (A4) vs Brest (B5)
Paris S-G (A2) vs the winner of Logrono (C1)/Besiktas (D2)
R-NL (B3) vs Bjerringbro (A6)
Vardar (B2) vs the winner of Nantes (D1)/Montpellier (C2)
Kiel (A3) vs Kristianstad (B6)
Taking a look at these pairings, I’ll say with around 95% confidence that the quarterfinals would be
Barca (A1) vs Flensburg (A5)
Kielce (B1) vs Veszprem (A4)
Paris S-G (A2) vs R-NL (B3)
Vardar (B2) vs Kiel (A3)
Honestly, I think the only 2 teams capable of crashing the quarterfinal party are Szeged and surprising Nantes. But, even then it’s a long shot. Of course, as Zagreb showed last year, anything can happen. It’s just not likely, though, that an undermanned team will prevail in a 120 minute aggregate format.
While that’s the scenario for the current standings there’s sure to be some fluctuation over the course of the Group Stage. Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assess that in Group A, there is a significant gap in quality between the top 5 (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem and Flensburg) and the bottom 3 (Bjerringbro, Plock and Schaffhausen). At least I will be very surprised if any of those last 3 teams crack the top 5.
Group B is a little harder to read, and overall I think it is significantly weaker than Group A. With this group I think the separation line is between the top 3 (Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) and the bottom 5 (Szeged, Brest, Kristianstad, Celje and Zagreb. Maybe Szeged or Brest are above the line, but I’ve got my doubts.
With Groups C and D (also known as the little kids table) I think whoever gets matched up against the 2nd seed in Group B will have a puncher’s chance of making the quarterfinal, particularly if they play Vardar, but it’s still a longshot.
All told, shuffle the standings for the top 5 in Group A and the top 3 in Group B, however you want I’m betting those 8 teams (Barca, Paris, Kiel, Veszprem, Flensburg, Kielce, Vardar and R-NL) will make the quarter-finals. But, unlike the round of 16 every single one of those quarterfinal clubs will have a realistic expectation of making the final four regardless of who their opponent is. There won’t be a gimme matchup for any club.
So what’s the point of all this analysis? Well Staat is wrong when he says it doesn’t matter if you make 1st place or 6th place. At least it matters, if you want a relatively easy round of 16 matchup. If you’re a top team in Group A, you can be happy with 5th place, but you’ll want to avoid 6th place. And, if you’re a top team in Group B, you’ll want to avoid dropping down to 4th place. But, once you are firmly established in the top 5 of Group A or top 3 of Group B it doesn’t matter very much where you end up. You’re going to get a Round of 16 match you should win and then you’re going to get a challenging quarterfinal. But Staat has the right sentiment; Win, lose or draw doesn’t it matter a lot, as long as you don’t slip below the demarcation line.
Odds according to Nordic Bet
And, it’s not just me that’s come up with that analysis. The oddsmakers also see a huge gap in quality as the odds of winning the title drop off dramatically after the top 8 teams.
Brest, Celje, Zagreb, Nantes, Bjerringbro Silkeborg, Logrono, Holstebro, Zaporozhye, Schaffhausen, Bucharest, Medvedi 249-1
Kristianstad, Metalurg, Elverum, Presov, Besiktas, Braga 749-1
But, I’ll give O’Brannigain his due regarding the competitiveness of the matches. Despite the lack of meaning, so to speak, there’s been a lot of quality, entertaining handball being played. Players are playing hard and they clearly want to win. There’s even been a few surprise losses to the top 8 teams, but I still have a hard time believing that those top teams will slide below the demarcation lines in their groups. For sure they won’t rest their best players in a CL match if that’s in danger of happening.
Other Formats to Consider
Staat also has a point regarding too many teams (6 of 8) reaching the knockout stages. This all but ensures a team with a losing record will advance. But, the old format with four teams qualifying wasn’t much better. This is because the groups had more 2nd tier teams, again ensuring that a top team would reach the Round of 16 unless they suffered a total meltdown. So, basically the only real difference in the format is that the group stages have more matchups between elite teams. Overall, this is a good thing even if there aren’t any real consequences to these showdowns.
There’s no perfect format for a league, but in principle when the match outcome has significant consequences you’re going get a more compelling match. This is why the knockout stages of the CL are so compelling. And, it’s why the Group Stage matches are not.
If you want to make the Group Stages more compelling you will need to have fewer clubs advancing, but the EHF would also need to make the groups stronger top to bottom. And, right now the only way to do that would be to add some more German Clubs, which wouldn’t make very many people happy. The German clubs don’t want more challenging matches in the first place and here you would be adding even more German teams to the fray. Scandinavia and other leagues are already not happy with the creation of Groups C and D and under this scenario they would be totally pushed out.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you really wanted to get radical you could make the knockout stages more compelling by having more matches of consequence between the elite clubs. Why just play two in the Quarterfinals? Why not a best of 3 or best of 5 NBA format? Or better yet skip the Final Four weekend and give handball the full NBA treatment: play a best of 7 for the semis and finals. That would be phenomenal!
But, I know that won’t be happening anytime soon due to the number of matches that would have to be played and for how it would mess up the domestic league schedules. Still, I can dream, can’t I?