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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 football’s most powerful and wealthy gathered in a fittingly ostentatious setting. An era was about to pass.

If the competition’s group stage has recently become a round to pay minimal attention to, this is a season to really savour it. That is because it’s 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 stage’s 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 Asprilla’s 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.

This is, of course, a large reason why this is the last group stage. All it has really got left is nostalgia. There have been fewer and fewer nights where you feel the old tension. On average, 15 of the 16 wealthiest usually get through every season.

It was arguably why Manchester City’s long-awaited victory was the real start of a new era, more so than this end to the traditional groups, or the fact this is the first campaign since 2002-03 without Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The defending champions are the first