Boring? The Champions League is still the best we’ve got

TWENTY-ONE of this season’s UEFA Champions League group stage clubs were involved in the 2021-22 campaign. Given this phase of the competition is supposed to represent the best that Europe has to offer, this should surprise nobody. Indeed, if the constitution feels a little stale, it is because European football, generally, is dominated by the same clubs in almost every major country. As a result, the standard bearers for each nation have a very familiar look about them.

The modern game has evolved into a series of hegemonies, where money, power and influence have elevated a group of clubs that are expected to dominate and show leadership. The Champions League, which has played its part in creating these clubs, has become the property of the elite but at the same time, it has given lesser clubs the chance to earn serious money on an occasional basis. But let’s be frank, the competition belongs to the rich and those that sit outside the golden ring are really thrown scraps from the table, albeit valuable, gilded scraps.

However, it is hard to dispute that the quality of the competition – at least in the knockout stages – is hard to beat and is arguably more compelling than the World Cup and other national team tournaments. Continued participation in the Champions League allows clubs to go back to their domestic leagues with a distinct financial advantage.

It’s understandable, then, that of the 32, 13 feature in Deloitte’s Football Money League top 20 for 2022 and a further two are in the 30. Seven are not involved, the most notable exclusions being Manchester United and Arsenal, who have become Europa League clubs for the time being.

The creation of the Champions League, which expanded the idea of the European Champion Clubs Cup to include more than just the league champions of each country, has almost guaranteed that Europe’s biggest clubs have a better chance of participating each year. This is good for the clubs concerned and good for UEFA from a financial and marketing perspective, but is it necessarily good for those that do not, and are never likely to, take part? Is making the elite band completely inaccessible really good for the overall health of the game? In 2021-22, the four Premier League clubs that took part in the Champions League earned close to £ 400 million between them. Football’s great selling point has always been the prospect of the unexpected and the possibility of having aspiration. By almost ring-fencing the gravy train, some of that is removed. Unfortunately, the Champions League brought the idea of extreme capitalism to football, the survival of the fittest and richest and damn the rest.

 TeamsDomestic
Champions

2021-22
European
silverware winners
Group AAjax, Liverpool, Napoli, Rangers14
Group BAtlético, Brugge, Leverkusen, Porto22
Group CBarcelona, Bayern, Inter, Viktoria Plzn23
Group DFrankfurt, Marseille, Sporting, Tottenham04
Group EAC Milan, Chelsea, Dinamo Zagreb, Salzburg33
Group FCeltic, RB Leipzig, Real Madrid, Shakhtar33
Group GCopenhagen, Dortmund, Manchester City, Sevilla23
Group HBenfica, Juventus, Maccabi Haifa, Paris Saint-Germain23


Of this year’s group stage clubs, 15 were league champions in 2021-22 – in pre-Champions League days, these clubs would have taken part in the European Cup and the rest would enter the UEFA Cup (or even Cup-Winners’ Cup), which was a strong and lucrative competition at its peak. The expanded Champions League clearly damaged the credibility of the UEFA/Europa League, but in 2022, we saw a revival of UEFA’s second and third offering – the pleasure people seemed to get from both the Europa and Conference leagues was very visible. UEFA, as derided as they frequently are, may have got something right in they have given back some aspiration. If closely linking all three competitions was possible (beyond the Europa winners being given a place in the Champions League), UEFA may have stumbled upon a credible response to those calling for a super league.

The critics of the bloated format of the Champions League might consider that familiarity breeds contempt, but the group stages don’t always reveal that. For example, in five years between 2017-18 and 2021-22, Bayern Munich had 15 different opponents (out of 15) in the group stage, Liverpool and Juventus had 14 and Real Madrid and Manchester City 13. This season’s draw, an example of how to squeeze a lot out of a seemingly simple process, has brought together a few old friends, such as Real Madrid and Shakhtar for the third season running, Liverpool with Ajax and Napoli and Barcelona and Bayern.

It is inevitable the latter stages will look like the same old scene because the best teams should win through the group phase. On average, the last eight changes by 50% per season, but in 2021-22, five teams remained the same as the previous season. From a small number, the likely winners of the Champions League will emerge. We’ve seen four different champions in four years: Liverpool, Bayern, Chelsea and Real Madrid. In that time, there have been seven different finalists out of a possible eight. The “bulge bracket” of clubs currently comprises the top Premier clubs (at this moment Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, but likely to change at any moment),  Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich. It is no coincidence that the last seven finalists include those six clubs plus Tottenham. Barcelona are temporarily sidelined, but not for long. The usual Quarter-finals include three clubs from Spain, two from England, one from Germany and then two drawn from Portugal, France or Italy. Regardless of what some sceptics might claim, not one club has been an ever present in the last eight of the Champions League over the past decade and in the last five years, just one has been ever present, Manchester City.

Best performance in European Cup/UEFA Champions League32 Group stage entrants
WinnersAC Milan, Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Benfica, Borussia Dortmund, Celtic,  Chelsea, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Marseille, Porto, Real Madrid (14)
FinalistsAtlético Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Brugge, Eintracht Frankfurt, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham (7)
Semi-finalistsRB Leipzig, Rangers (2)
Quarter-finalsSevilla, Sporting Lisbon, Shakhtar Donetsk (3)
Round of 16FC Copenhagen, Napoli, Red Bull Salzburg (3)
GroupDinamo Zagreb, Maccabi Haifa, Viktoria Pilzn (3)

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