What did you think of the group stage of this season’s Uefa Cup? I know; you’re racking your brains and still cannot be sure whether that match between Heerenveen and Braga was this season or last. Or was it AZ Alkmaar against Boavista? Maybe that was the Intertoto. Anyway, it is fair to say that even those of us who regard ourselves as football enthusiasts increasingly draw the line at the Uefa Cup.

Only now, as the quarter-finals loom, do we pay attention to the campaign of the Barclays Premier League’s sole survivors, Manchester City, who are away to Hamburg in the first leg on Thursday. All I know of the story so far is that it seems to have involved meetings with an inordinate number of Danish teams, the most recent of whom were vanquished in a penalty decider.

The Uefa Cup, once avidly followed (not least because it offered a guide to up-and-coming contenders for the supreme European title), has suffered from the expansion of the Champions League since its inception in 1992-93 and the forthcoming change of name to the Europa League will not help. It will continue to interest only supporters of the clubs involved and, even then, not necessarily in their entirety.

So the competition needs radical reform – and the prime requirement is to get rid of the group stage because it serves only to emphasise the Uefa Cup’s inferiority to the Champions League. It must be straight knockout so that every match is an event and the beauty of this is that it would take European football to many more towns and cities than is the case at present, spreading the appeal demonstrated by what I suddenly remember as the finest sight of this season’s Uefa Cup to English eyes: Portsmouth v AC Milan.
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A sort of two-legged version of the FA Cup would enable 256 clubs to enter. You could have eight each from England, Spain and Italy, seven from Germany, six from France and the Netherlands and so on down to one from Liechtenstein. For every shock first-round result that hit a bigger club in the pocket, there would be a boost to another excluded from the European game at present.

At least as much money would come into football, and possibly a great deal more – the finalists would play no fewer than 15 matches, all of them meaningful – but it would be more evenly distributed and there would be more magical occasions such as Portsmouth-Milan. You could have Stoke City against Lazio, say, or Wigan Athletic against Valencia, with the winners taking all. And the losers having every chance of another tilt the next year.

More than half of the clubs in the top leagues would qualify for Europe; you could even have play-offs for some of the places so that anyone not relegated would have an opportunity to end the season on a high.

The knockout character of the new competition – the Europa Cup is as good a name as any – would only add to the supporters’ excitement and, while those responsible for drawing up clubs’ budgets might complain about unpredictability of revenue, all they would have to do is incentivise their players’ contracts, which they should be doing anyway.

There is nothing wrong with the Uefa Cup, in short, that cannot be cured by a return to basics.

While the Champions League was going through the dreary ritual of its group stage, we could enjoy the romance of a cup: something different, rather than a paler imitation. And to offer the winners a place in the next season’s Champions League would complete the process of integration. Uefa: get on with it. You have nothing to lose but a worry.

England flying in World Cup formation under Capello’s wing

To be able to win while playing badly, as England did against Ukraine last week, can be a characteristic of champions. It can also be a characteristic of a bad side who happen to be playing an even worse one – and the Ukrainians must have learnt their set-piece defending at Madame Tussauds – but by and large the statement of defiance issued through John Terry’s late winner was impressive.

Over the course of two matches, starting with the friendly win over a Slovakia side preparing for the sweetest of World Cup triumphs in Prague, there was little to discourage those of us who believe that England have as strong a chance as anyone of returning victorious from South Africa next year. With the possible exception of Spain, that is – although even the Spaniards have a vulnerability in central defence that jeopardises their hopes of adding the world title to the European Championship.

England’s main worry is at full back. At the start of last season, when Steve McClaren appeared to be guiding them to the Euro 2008 finals, another illusion was that he was well served at each end of the back four. On the left was Ashley Cole, one of the world leaders in the position; on the right Micah Richards, almost bursting with athletic promise. Now Cole makes Wembley groan and Richards languishes in the Under21s, vowing to revive his career.

Thus let us hope that Owen Hargreaves is fit for duty at Manchester United after his knee operations, because he can play right back, and that Wayne Bridge burgeons at Manchester City, for the underrated Bridge looks a safer bet than Cole at the moment.

In front of the back four, while Frank Lampard earned praise, there was criticism of Gareth Barry, but his shortcomings in both the creative and defensive aspects should be put down to the jading effects of Aston Villa’s season. Wherever he plays next season he should be restored to the form that once made him one of England’s key assets.

It transpires that the 4-2-3-1 formation we envisaged is seen slightly differently by Capello, who said after the Slovakia match that he had had three in midfield and three ahead of them – two with licence to roam (Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard) and a centre forward – and wanted to continue playing that way.

We shall see. Watching Aaron Lennon flit between midfield and wing like a sorcerer’s apprentice last Wednesday, I did wonder if it would work against the better sides. The two-three midfield split favoured by Rafael BenÍtez (it goes without saying) has got the best out of Gerrard. But the main thing is that Capello has England playing between the lines of 4-4-2 that past managers have pronounced restrictive, Glenn Hoddle even successfully trying 3-5-2 before his unedifying fall.

England, while far from perfection, are where their advocates would want them now.

Scotland the brave take lead

Football today often seems to reflect the worst of contemporary parenthood: supposed authority recoils in the face of the recalcitrant. Referees like to “manage”, rather than rule, players who, if shown a yellow or red card, are allowed to delay their squawking departures from the scene with impunity. “Respect” is requested by the FA, not imposed. When matters are referred to disciplinary bodies, they wring their hands and anxiously consult lawyers before diluting punishments. There is always an excuse to avoid doing the right thing.

Hats off, then, to the Scots. When Barry Ferguson, the erstwhile captain, and Allan McGregor compounded the offence of boozing between World Cup qualifiers with yobbishly defiant gestures to photographers during the match they were made to sit out, the Scottish FA did not hold a hearing or invite their observations. It simply listened to the supporters and announced that Ferguson and McGregor would never represent Scotland again.

And when their club, Rangers, not only suspended the pair but indicated that they, too, were of a mind to get rid of them as soon as buyers could be found, you could almost hear the roar of approval from a society tired of weak leadership. A standard had been set and, if there is any justice, Scottish football will reap the benefits for many years to come. I cannot remember the last time I felt so proud of being associated with the game.