Eighty thousand bouncing zealots will fill the Westfalenstadion on Tuesday for what, in soccer lingo, is known as a classic European night. There have been hundreds over the years, cocktails of passion, floodlights and Champions League football. In Germany, on Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund and its Yellow Wall will welcome Newcastle for the latest in a long line of mystical affairs — a clash that could, ultimately, dump one of these two storied clubs out of the tournament.
And in that sense, as a high-stakes showdown in November, it could also be the last of its kind.
The Champions League group stage is nearing its final month of existence. UEFA will overhaul it next year and beyond, with 36 teams lumped into a single table. The modified “Swiss format” will bring some benefits. But it will largely extinguish head-to-head drama, the type that’s based on the nerve-pinching knowledge that one team’s success drags its opponent into doubly deep despair.
Dortmund and Newcastle lived that drama two weeks ago. St. James’ Park rose and fell with every sweeping move of a tense, boomeranging game. Dortmund took a late-first-half lead. Newcastle strived for an equalizer. Callum Wilson hit the crossbar. So did Anthony Gordon, inciting agony in the final minute of stoppage time.
But Dortmund held tight, 1-0, and clawed its way toward the messy middle of Group F. At its midway point, four European giants (or quasi-giants) are separated by four points. Paris Saint-Germain stands atop the quartet, with two wins and only one blemish, a drubbing at the hands of Newcastle. The Magpies and Dortmund, meanwhile, are two points back, with AC Milan two points behind them.
So they are all capably poised, halfway through a double round robin, to chase the most coveted trophy in club soccer.
And they are all in danger, likewise at risk of bowing out before the business end of the competition even begins.
This, therefore, is the last great Champions League group.
So cherish it.
It’s also admittedly an infrequent occurrence nowadays. Group-stage intrigue has been waning as superclubs have risen, even as the format has remained unchanged. A dozen clubs have pulled away from the continental pack and left most Champions League participants fighting over scraps. True contenders rarely perish in this opening round anymore. Even those that stumble, such as Manchester United, can survive by simply beating overmatched foes who operate on relatively minuscule budgets.
The revamped format, for this very reason, could inject some life into early stages. It was driven, of course, by money — four more teams plus two more games, including more battles between titans, equals more revenue for UEFA and participating clubs. But there are genuine sporting benefits.
The 36 teams will jump and plummet up and down one 1-through-36 table. The top eight advance directly to the Round of 16, while 9-24 qualify for a play-in round. And the knockout rounds will be bracketed, à la March Madness or a tennis tournament, with seeding “partly determined by the league phase rankings.” There will, in UEFA’s words, be “more to play for all the way through to the final night of the league phase.”
But there will surely be confusion. And there likely won’t be head-to-head matchups with the import of Tuesday’s in Dortmund and Milan, or a Nov. 28 showdown between PSG and Newcastle in Paris. There will rarely, if ever, be 90 minutes that possess the power to crown or crack one contender and do the opposite to a direct competitor.
That has been the magic of the Champions League group stage, and the foundation for countless classic European nights.
It will soon disappear. So Group F, the last of its genre, is worth savoring.