Comment - Why the Champions League has lost its magic
Leicester’s Premier League title triumph enchanted the football world in the first half of 2016, but a similar sporting miracle seems impossible to imagine in UEFA’s increasingly uninspiring Champions League.
The facts confirm that Europe’s leading competition is proving to be a turn-off for TV viewers across Europe, with the inevitability of the same few teams reaching the latter stages each year hardly leading to dramatic action.
As the draw was made for this season’s Champions League in Monaco on Thursday evening, it was safe to assume that holders Real Madrid, their domestic rivals Barcelona or German champions Bayern Munich would be lifting the trophy when it is handed out in Cardiff next May. Shocks have been few and far between in this competition in recent years and that may be why the audience is turning off at an alarming rate.
UEFA officials expressed concerns over the UK viewing figures produced during last season’s Champions League and those declining numbers look set to slide again in season a that will see English heavyweights Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea absent from Europe’s elite competition.
While Leicester’s presence as top seeds in the Champions league was a novelty that completed their ‘fairytale’ story, the reality will be that matches featuring Claudio Ranieri’s unlikely lads will not generate the kind of interest that could have been expected if Liverpool were taking on Barcelona, or Chelsea were lining up against Bayern Munich in the opening phase of the competition.
We may have been enchanted by the Leicester story as they defied all odds to be crowned as champions in May, but how many will cancel all plans to settle down in front of the TV to watch them in action in games against Club Brugge and FC Copenhagen in Group G of the Champions League?
The same doubts can be attached to Tottenham’s Group E matches against CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco, in a season when they will play their home matches in front of what are expected to be sell-out crowds at Wembley Stadium. This will be a wonderful story for Spurs supporters, but the wider interest may be moderate.
Soccer lovers will correctly argue that the presence of Leicester and Tottenham in the Champions League is good for the soul of the game in an era notable for garish spending from sporting names that have long since become big businesses, yet such romance is destined to be crushed by the changes that are on the horizon.
With Europe’s elite clubs eager to ensure their places in the Champions League are secure each and every season, the top four clubs from England, Spain, Germany and Italy look set to be awarded four places in the competition each season without the annoyance of a play-off, with the minnows in minor leagues unable to dampen down the demands of the game’s power brokers.
Talks staged to discuss a breakaway competition for next season forced UEFA’s hand into making changes, with a demand for guaranteed revenue flow more important to top clubs than the romance of a side like Leicester upsetting the odds to achieve glory.
So we may be about to witness the end of the Champions League as we know it, with UEFA keen to eradicate group stage games that fail to capture the imagination and ensuring all the focus will remain on Europe’s big hitters. Those changes are set to be voted through later this year and will limit the spaces open to those that lack the pulling power of Europe’s most valuable clubs.
The prospect of new Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola returning to his old club Barcelona - in a group that will provide the ultimate test for Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side - will be one of the more eagerly anticipated group stages encounters, while Arsenal’s enticing clashes with Paris Saint-Germain will make for captivating viewing in a season when Gunners boss Arsene Wenger is likely to be under pressure like never before.
However, the truth is the sense of excitement that once prevailed when the Champions League draw was announced has been diluted for some time now, which explains why UEFA are be pushed into change in a bid to keep the flame flickering in their marquee competition.
We should not expect to see a Premier League team taking their place in the Champions League final in Cardiff next May as the last four seasons have provided conclusive proof that England’s cash-rich giants are no match for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich when it matters most.
The dominance of the same handful of teams each and every year is one reason why the Champions League is in danger of going stale, so maybe we should all hope for Leicester’s old-school magic to be sprinkled on a competition that has lost its much-needed aura of unpredictability.