Monday 24 June 2019

Ed Malyon: 'Elite power move killing unpredictability of the Champions League'

'Atletico Madrid are good enough to win the whole thing in their own stadium' Photo: AFP/Getty Images
'Atletico Madrid are good enough to win the whole thing in their own stadium' Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ed Malyon

That the first Champions League knockout round features virtually the exact 16 teams most would have predicted before the group stage tells us much about the state of European football.

Worse than that, it's the sort of line-up that will end up perpetuating the cycle that sees richer clubs pulling away from the rest - not just within the Champions League itself, but also away from their domestic rivals.

This season was the first time that the top four sides from England, Spain, Germany and Italy have all automatically qualified for the Champions League group stage, a concession made by Uefa president Alexander Ceferin as the continent's elite threatened to leave the competition.

Those same clubs also made a grab, successfully, for a larger share of the TV money based on their historic value to the competition.

It was an exercise that aimed to ring-fence the biggest brands in Europe and ensure their simpler progress to the later stages of the Champions League.

'We make you all the money, so you need us playing in the competition every year,' was the message and Ceferin buckled on it.

The likely upshot of this, as seen this season, is that fewer and fewer interlopers will find their way into the last 16. At least 10 of the names will be the same every year.

Perhaps it is interesting, though, that the distance that those teams progress deep into the competition might start to vary a little.

Those 'legacy' teams that successfully inverted Uefa, held them by the ankles and jangled them for those extra few coins and preferential treatment, are now struggling a little.

Bayern Munich, one of Europe's most politically powerful clubs, are nine points adrift of Borussia Dortmund and undeniably at what the Spanish call 'the end of a cycle' in the Bundesliga.

They will have one last tilt at the Champions League before that aging squad gets a much-needed facelift and Barcelona too are approaching a fin de ciclo of their own.

Real Madrid might just be starting one under Santiago Solari but, more likely, are going to blow the whole thing up and hit reset in the summer as well.

The rule changes of this year ensure that even when these three giants of European football go about their rebuilding, they will be assured their significant piece of the pie and a place in the Champions League proper.

Those are the rewards for winning eight of the last 10 European Cups.

Lionel Messi's magic is the only reason why any of these three clubs figure among the five favourites for the competition.

Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool are in there instead, a sign of the changing of the guard that might be coming within Europe's elite - even if the elite have already pulled up the ladder on everyone else.

PSG, like Juventus, are walking away with things domestically and can focus their attentions on the Champions League, a blessing not to be underestimated.

Atletico Madrid are good enough to win the whole thing in their own stadium come the end of the season but they find themselves also embroiled in what might end up being the tightest La Liga title race in years.

Two teams that stand out amid all the familiar names are not exactly minnows but still represent an insurgency that means their success would be welcomed.

Borussia Dortmund and Ajax both boast young squads packed to the brim not just with talent but some of the game's future superstars.

The rest of the teams are probably also-rans, and that includes Manchester United but Jose Mourinho is not getting the best out of players who otherwise might have the talent to go deep.

FC Porto remain interesting after blowing away their group under the impressive Sergio Conceicao but they're likely to be the team that the second-placed sides hope to draw.

Schalke, Lyon and Roma are likely to be one-and-done in the knockout stage while Tottenham are an enigma, they won just two games and ended with a negative goal difference but still made it through.

In Mauricio Pochettino, Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen they have the coach and talent to make a splash.

And yet the feeling remains that they're just a little short of that level, and by the time next season comes around there is a chance that the large-scale rebuilding efforts at some of Europe's biggest clubs mean that the likes of Pochettino aren't there anymore.

Fortunately for the clubs chasing Poch, Kane and friends, the Champions League has begun to ring-fence its richest clubs.

It doesn't mean we won't get entertainment, but it's another bad year for the dwindling unpredictability in elite sport. (© Independent News Service)


First-placed teams: Dortmund, Barcelona, PSG, Porto, Bayern, Man City, Real Madrid, Juventus.

Second-placed teams: Atletico, Tottenham, Liverpool, Schalke, Ajax, Lyon, Roma, Man United.

First-placed teams cannot draw a second-placed team from their group or domestic league.

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