The Champions League concluded its extra-long campaign as Bayern Munich defeated Paris Saint-Germain today in the Champions League Final 1-0 to win its sixth title in club history in the competition.
This was an unique season in the UCL as the round of 16 saw a five-month hiatus in the middle of the round due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All matches after the round of 16 took place in Lisbon with no fans. The biggest change came in the structure of the tournament.
In a normal year, the UCL has a two-leg format where each club competes in a home-and-away series with an aggregate score along with away goals acting as the tiebreaker. In 2020, the quarterfinals and semifinals were determined in only one match instead of two.
There are pros and cons to each format.
Starting with the two-leg format, it allows for incredible comebacks to happen such as Roma’s comeback against Barcelona in 2018 after losing the first leg 4-1. It also displays a longer battle between two heavyweights as well as simply more UCL action.
On the other hand, there can be many instances where the second leg is uninteresting due to the sheer dominance of one club in the first leg (imagine if Barcelona played Bayern in another match while trailing 8-2). Also, having extra matches in the calendar for competing clubs can wear out their rosters. Due to their being two matches, the first one loses some of its luster.
As for the one-match format, it has the same benefits as the World Cup knockout round, NFL Playoffs and March Madness. Clubs have one chance to get it right, leading to incredible finishes such as PSG scoring two late goals to defeat Atalanta 2-1 in the quarterfinals. Upsets are more likely to happen such as Lyon’s shocking 3-1 win over Manchester City. Each match has heightened intensity due to it being the one chance each club has to advance. With fewer matches, it allows competing clubs to be fresher for other competitions.
However, it strips away 14 matches from the UCL campaign and it lessens the probability for incredible comebacks. While losing UCL matches isn’t ideal, it erases unnecessary matches (we didn’t need a second leg between Barcelona and Bayern). Comebacks are still not completely erased either. PSG rallied from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1 and last year, when Tottenham Hotspur came back to beat Ajax down 3-0, two of the three goals from Ajax came in the second leg. While less likely, comebacks are still possible in the one-match format, making them even more memorable when they occur.
My two favorite postseason systems have always been the NFL Playoffs and March Madness in large part due to one-match battles. The Champions League knockout round has been third since I started watching football full-time in 2016 and it could possibly elevate higher in my list with this change.
Like the English Premier League, the Champions League restart was a success (except for some matches being only available in the U.S. on CBS All Access, a very upsetting fact), pulling off great matches without fans in attendance. While it is highly unlikely UEFA will make this change, I think this would make the Champions League knockout round even more exciting.