How the Champions League lost its spark and led to the end of an era
There was a rare wistfulness around the Champions League draw in Monaco, where footballs most powerful and wealthy gathered in a fittingly ostentatious setting. An era was about to pass.
If the competitions group stage has recently become a round to pay minimal attention to, this is a season to really savour it. That is because its the last one before the introduction of the Swiss system.
This will be the last campaign we go through the satisfying symmetry of the round-robin, hoping it builds up to one of those final matchdays part of a lexicon that is the stages legacy where it is anything but symmetrical and chaos reigns. The clean nature of the format has produced some wonderfully untidy endings.
Appropriately, a returning Arsenal will aim to relive how often they got through under Arsene Wenger. Newcastle United will doubtless be seeking to build atmosphere by showing Faustino Asprillas hat-trick against Barcelona in 1997-98, as well as the stirring comeback in 2002-03. Manchester United, the English club perhaps most associated with how thrillingly exacting the group stage used to be, are back for one final fight. It might not be easy, but that may not prove such an obstacle to getting through.