THERE were plenty of chin-stroking sceptics and prophets of doom predicting the devaluation of European club football when the UEFA Conference League was created. Most questioned why UEFA was introducing another competition when they had done their best to compromise their original franchise. However, with Roma (European Cup finalists 1984) and Feyenoord (European Cup winners 1970) meeting in the final in a few weeks, the governing body has a very decent game to launch the first final. In fact, wind the clock back 30 or 40 years, and this would have made a good UEFA Cup final or even a compelling European Cup final.
One thing has become clear this season is the role the Europa and Conference Leagues can play in providing genuine excitement and expectation outside of the elite group of clubs that usually compete in the Champions League’s latter stages. For a long time, there seems to have been no place for clubs who are not quite big or grand enough to rub shoulders with teams like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich on a regular basis. The season’s aspiration for a lot of clubs has become “Champions League or bust”, but in truth, this has been so vital because of the financial benefits, somewhere down the line, the idea of “glory” seems to have been mislaid.
When the UEFA Cup was at its peak, it was a very absorbing competition that was often very powerful and consisted of teams that had often gone close to being domestic champions. It was an important second competition in UEFA’s portfolio. The dear old UEFA Cup was weakened by the over-expansion of the European Cup as it morphed into the Champions League, while the diminishing status of domestic cup competitions meant the old Cup-Winners’ Cup often had a very weak field. The Conference League has, arguably, made the Europa stronger and also introduced another layer to create more winners, or at least, more clubs enjoying prolonged runs in Europe. For once, UEFA may have got it right, judging by the excitement that we’ve seen in both the Europa and Conference Leagues. It could be UEFA have finally realised that the greed-orientated growth of the Champions League did more damage than good to the bigger picture.
Looking at the three competitions, the final line-up is really quite appetising: Liverpool versus Real Madrid in the Champions League; Eintracht Frankfurt versus Rangers in the Europa; and Roma-Feyenoord in the Conference. The passion of the crowds at West Ham, Frankfurt and Rangers underlined just how engaged people were in the prospect of a European final. Nobody was taking these games lightly.
As for the Champions League, UEFA could not have wished for more: the club that has been related to the competition since the concept’s inception, Real Madrid, against the English club with the best record. England versus Spain, as opposed to an all-England final that nobody outside Liverpool and Manchester really wanted. What’s more, the game is now in Paris, the birthplace of the European Cup, rather than St. Petersburg.
UEFA may have realised that over-expansion of the Champions League did more harm than good to the governing body’s competition portfolio.
If there are two clubs that can bring out their best form when all around might not be rosy, it is Real Madrid and Liverpool. Real are La Liga champions, but nobody appears totally convinced about their current side. Real Madrid have already lost four games on their way to the final, including one leg in each of the knockout rounds. Only three teams have lost more games, Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus (2002) and AC Milan (2003) all defeated five times en route to the competition’s climax.
Liverpool, of course, are fighting on all fronts and the pursuit of the “quadruple” has become the new narrative just as the “treble” was in 1977. It’s fascinating to see how some segments of the media have changed their tune about one team winning everything, suggesting only a year ago that Manchester City sweeping-up would be a bad thing, while the nation should now get behind Liverpool because they are a fine outfit. That may be true, but Monopolies are boring, and nobody apart from the Reds of Anfield will be hoping Jürgen Klopp’s team pull-off an unprecedented haul of trophies in 2021-22.
UEFA will no doubt benefit from a showcase final involving two of the best supported clubs in world football. From a commercial perspective, Real and Liverpool will surely generate more income and media interest than an all-Premier tie or an all-Spanish final. The other aspect is the monotony of another Liverpool-Manchester City clash this season. This will be the sixth England versus Spain final and only once (1981, Liverpool 1 Real Madrid 0) has the result gone in England’s favour. The others include two Manchester United-Barcelona setbacks (2009 and 2011), Barca beating Arsenal (2006) and Real overcoming Liverpool in 2018.
In the past decade, there have been 11 different finalists in the Champions League, but only one new winner (Chelsea in 2012). Interestingly, of the so-called “new money” clubs, the Londoners are so far the only winners of the competition – Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City are still toiling away, invariably going out in dramatic circumstances each year as evidenced in PSG and City’s capitulations at the hands of Real Madrid. Furthermore, while Real have won the Champions League four times in the past 10 years, Barcelona, their rivals, have not lifted the big prize more than once, in 2015. Pep Guardiola, the man hired to make his employer – at Bayern and Manchester City – champions of Europe, has not won the trophy since 2011.
It’s clear that both Real Madrid and Liverpool know how to expertly handle the complexities of the Champions League and seem to have an extra quality that enables them to negotiate the competition at a crucial stage. Conversely, PSG and City seem to be unable to keep their nerve when it matters. At some stage, both may win the Champions League, but they will surely have to make sure they don’t come up against wily campaigners like this year’s finalists.