THE UEFA Champions League kicks off today against a backdrop of financial discomfort, battered club reputations and a summer of transfer surprises. With the European Super league debacle still fresh in the memory, the general footballing public would, to quote Kevan Keegan from the 1990s, “just love it” if the continent’s elite clubs were deprived of the ultimate prize in 2021-22.
The Champions League has the chance to remind people it remains the most engaging of club competitions, especially in the knockout stages when the action acquires a sharper cutting edge. The Champions League is, effectively, a European Super League, with huge financial rewards. It may be the playground of the rich and famous, but it is not yet a closed competition.
The elite win it, year-in, year-out and the last club from outside the group classified as upper echelon mainstays to win the Champions League were Porto in 2004. Since then, the 12 clubs who enthused over the ESL project have accounted for 27 of 34 final places and the others have gone to Bayern (5), Paris Saint-Germain (1) and Borussia Dortmund (1).
In all probability, the 2021-22 edition will be won by one of these clubs, but for some, the landscape has certainly changed for the worse. Real Madrid and Barcelona are troubled and the Italian clubs are flirting with economic danger. PSG and Manchester United have shopped themselves into contention and Chelsea and Manchester City will believe they have a chance. In the group stage, there are some heavyweight clashes, which may go some way to determining who is really in contention. For example, Liverpool will face AC Milan, Porto and Atlético Madrid in the proverbial “group of death”.
The pandemic has shown that English clubs have continued to spend big while many of their peers in Spain and Italy have suffered. In the past three years, there has been two all-England finals, which again underlines the financial strength of the Premier League. This year, the English look stronger than ever – City strengthened with Jack Grealish, Chelsea acquired Romelu Lukaku, Liverpool have Virgil back and United and CR7 have remarried.
But what UEFA needs is an unlikely winner in 2021-22, if only to be able to emphasise the competitiveness of the Champions League. In the last five years, there have been four different winners (Chelsea, Bayern, Liverpool and Real) and another four different finalists (Manchester City, PSG, Tottenham and Juventus) – this is not a two-team duopoly.
As well as the rise of English clubs, we have also seen the consolidation of an uber-elite that is relatively immune to the financial pressure of the pandemic. PSG, Manchester City and Chelsea. Because the world has changed and the historic strengths clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United have been eroded, the power of the new order is reaping benefits in a crisis-hit game.
The Champions League, as a result, could be more competitive than it has been for some time, although the roll-call of winners and finalists suggests a more democratic field than most believe. Barcelona’s last win will be seven years old in 2022, Manchester City, PSG and Atlético Madrid have never won the cup, United’s last victory was in 2008, the most recent of Juventus’s two triumphs was 25 years ago. Pep Guardiola has not won the competition since 2011.
UEFA needs a winner that falls outside the Chelsea – City – PSG triumvirate, maybe a club that hasn’t been champions before? In a perfect world, it would be a club from outside the ESL rebellion. That’s a tall order, so how about Borussia Dortmund or Atlético Madrid?
Photo: Valery Parkhomenko CC BY-NC-ND 2.0