You may be surprised by this heading, but you will understand if you have followed my earlier writing on this topic. For me, it is now, with the Round of 16 (or 1/8-finals) that the real competition has started. In recent months we have gone through a rather long period with many boring matches and predictable results. Now, with 16 of the best teams fighting it out for the places in the quarter-finals and beyond, we have finally arrived at the stage where the absolute top teams meet each other and every goal counts in every match.
I understand the politics of the issue, so I know why 24 seems such a convenient number. It allows several more countries to take part in the main round in Champions League, even if it is with a team that does not really belong there. And some people argue that it is not so good if we see too many matches with just German or Spanish teams. But as far as I am concerned, a main round with 4 groups of 4 teams is what fits the reality.
John Ryan commented a few days ago that the bookmakers made the four group winners heavy favorites in road games this past weekend. But only Chekhovski had an easy team, and that was really due to the lucky draw against Bosna. Kiel did not wake up until the second half, and Ciudad Real’s relatively comfortable win depended mostly on Sterbik having a great day in goal. Montpellier lost in Schaffhausen, which probably confirms that this year Chambery is the only really strong team in France.
The closest one among the other games was the 27-26 win for Flensburg in Szeged and RN Loewen won another tough battle in Zagreb. But one could not be entirely sure that this means that they will win so easily at home this week. Hamburg and Barcelona won with more comfortable margins at home. The clear win for Barsa was perhaps a bit surprising and it only came after Sjostrand in goal stopped everything in the late stages. It will be tough for Veszprem to catch up after losing by seven.
For next season (or a year later), there are already some interesting changes being discussed. The top clubs have serious concerns about playing the Champions League games during the weekends, as this forces them to play many of their league games during the week. They would prefer the practice of UEFA in the football competitions, where the European games take place during the week, leaving the weekends for complete rounds of national league games.
Another change sought by some of the top leagues in Europe is to reduce the number of EHF competitions, by combining the EHF Cup and the Cupwinners’ Cup into one event. That might be easier to argue for countries that currently get five to eight participants in the different cups, but it might not be so popular among countries that would lose one or more of a much smaller number. Of course, it could be argued that the multitude of parallel events detracts from the attention given to the Champions League. But for me the more important change would be to find a format whereby the main round of the Champions League has no more than 16 teams!
In the meantime, watch out for some exciting EHF-TV games, starting already on Thursday with Rhein Neckar Loewen receiving Croatia. Will Croatia be able to reduce the German-Spanish dominance?