THE UEFA Champions League resumes very shortly and the last 16 this season is a very predictable mix of teams from the big five leagues – four from England and Spain apiece, three from Germany and Italy and two from France. The league leaders of each are included in the 16.
It’s actually an ominous picture, the continued polarisation of the European game. Over the past decade, a least 11 of the 16 clubs in the last 16 have come from the five major leagues. This season is the first time that the figure has reached 100%.
Increasingly, people are questioning the Champions League as it includes so many teams that are not the reigning champions of their domestic leagues. Liverpool, who will undoubtedly clinch their first Premier League title this season, won the Champions League last season after finishing fourth in 2017-18. They became the 11th non-champion to win the competition since it expanded, the first to claim such an honour was Manchester United in 1998-99.
Non-title winners lifted the European Cup a number of times as holders of the cup: Real Madrid in 1957 and 1960; Inter Milan in 1965; Ajax in 1972; Bayern Munich in 1976 (after finishing 10th in 1975 in the Bundesliga); and Nottingham Forest in 1979-80.
As good as the Champions League can be, the damage being done to European football’s eco-system could prove fatal
If UEFA had not changed the format of their premier competition in 1997-98, the top champion club would have been very different to those who actually lifted the trophy. In 2018-19, the “champion” that went the furthest in the Champions League was Barcelona, an achievement they’ve managed four times since 1997-98 (2018-19, 2012-13, 2011-12 and 2005-06).
There would be no Real Madrid dominance in the 2010s if La Liga entrants were limited to the top club. Real have been the last man standing just twice since the UEFA expansion – in 2017-18 and 1997-98. Bayern Munich have been very consistent, hanging in there the longest of all competing champions in 2015-16, 2013-14, 2000-01 and 1999-00. Juventus, too, have a strong record, being the most durable top side in 2016-17, 2014-15, 2002-03 and 1998-99.
The rationale for broadening the Champions League was largely a commercial decision but was also aimed at raising the quality and profile of the competition. It is hard to create a shock result and even more difficult and unlikely for a surprise winner to emerge. The structure is designed to be as near to a league as possible, and as we know, leagues will always be won by the best team, while knockout competitions can spring a one-off and an upset. Who were the last “surprise” winners of the Champions League? It was probably Chelsea in 2012, or maybe Liverpool last season, who won a final between the two lowest-placed participants in the qualifying campaign (3rd and 4th in 2017-18) since the competition’s expansion.
The Champions League is a riveting competition, despite all the pomp and circumstance and the gearing of the system towards the big clubs. UEFA wants flagship clubs to reach the final from a showpiece, commercial and prestige perspective. This season, UEFA have a good chance of another clash of the titans – Real Madrid and Barca are still there and big guns like Bayern, Juventus and PSG are also still involved.
That’s all very well, but the original idea by L’Équipe and Gabriel Hanot was for champions to come face to face. The competition really gets interesting when the two-legged knockout stages get underway. And the swollen Champions League has all but killed the Europa League because it has taken all the cream from European football. This makes the Champions League an all-consuming cash cow grazing on elite football. Meanwhile, the Thursday night club looks and feels like a second-rate apology at times – not even UEFA seem convinced.
But UEFA probably won’t change things too dramatically because TV and the big clubs won’t let them, but the governing body would do well to explore the possibility of trimming down the Champions League and dispensing with the groups in both major competitions. Bring back the element of the unexpected.
The tragedy of it all is that everyone knows what’s wrong with football but nobody will move to solve the problems. While the cash keeps rolling in, there is little motivation to enforce change. As good and absorbing as the Champions League is, it is damaging the rest of football and before too long, the dominoes will start to fall. We are already seeing the early signs.