Rising European powers threaten to gatecrash elite's knockout stage party
Champions League approaching diversity levels Michel Platini vowed to cultivate, writes Paul Doyle
Is Europe getting bigger? Forget the map, look at the Champions League tables. With all group opponents having played each other once and readying themselves for the return fixtures this week, clubs from 10 different countries are on course to reach the knockout stages.
That would be the most since the introduction of the last 16 in 2003-04 (the average, since you ask, has been 7.7), suggesting, superficially at least, that Europe's elite competition is becoming more egalitarian. Chelsea put a new name on the cup last season but perhaps a more significant change is afoot.
Roman Abramovich's team are, of course, lavish spenders from one of Europe's big four leagues, so their success was hardly evidence of a seismic shift. You have to go back to 2004, when Jose Mourinho's Porto beat Monaco, to find a final that did not feature a team from England, Spain, Italy or Germany. But the chances of that cosy quartet being gatecrashed this season, and regularly thereafter, appear to be growing.
Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk, for instance, deservedly head a group featuring Chelsea, the holders, and Juventus, the Italian champions, who in their last match were held by the Danish novices Nordsjaelland. Last year's beaten finalists, Bayern Munich, are lagging behind Bate Borisov of Belarus, no less. Paris Saint-Germain, back in the Champions League after an eight-year absence, are also looking formidable.
This is approaching the sort of diversity that Michel Platini vowed to cultivate when he acceded to the Uefa throne in 2007. So has the Frenchman widened the field? Are we seeing the effects of financial fair play? Yes and no.
Many of the traditional big clubs have indeed cooled their spending. In some cases, that may have been because of eagerness to comply with financial fair play, with Uefa scheduled to begin monitoring club's accounts for the 2013-14 season (when they will also factor in transactions during the previous two seasons).
That may be why the Premier League champions, Manchester City, spent relatively little in the summer. Although whether they will continue that policy given that they look like finishing bottom of their group remains to be seen. The prudence of other clubs, meanwhile, has been less to do with eagerness to satisfy Uefa than their sheer inability to splurge as before.
Just as United's elimination last season was probably more down to restrictions applied by the Glazer family than Uefa, in the summer Milan sold their best two players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, for similar reasons. Lyon -- not from one of the big four leagues, of course, but hitherto a regular participant in the knockout stages -- failed even to qualify for this season's tournament because of an austerity programme imposed by a few years' shoddy transfer dealing and management.
The newly emerging clubs do not necessarily owe their ascent to careful management. Montpellier excelled to win the French league for the first time last season as Lyon and Marseille sought to streamline, but neither they nor the equally valiant Lille are threatening to shake up the continent's elite now. Instead, while they try to absorb the sales of players such as Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud to the Premier League, Paris Saint-Germain have taken up the slack -- thanks to Qatari sugar daddies.
Rising powers from the east, such as Shakhtar and Zenit St Petersburg, have not been quite as extravagant as PSG despite the latter's £64m purchase this summer of Axel Witsel and Hulk, but still owe much of their increasing competitiveness to injections of wealth that stretch the definition of self-generated income as much as many of the traditional aristocrats have done.
Zenit's largesse has yet to pay football dividend, as they are currently third in their group behind leaders Malaga, who in a way embody everything that financial fair play is intended to avoid. The Spaniards are a financial basket case and have been abandoned by Qatari owners who briefly blew them full of money last season before their departure led to implosion and the forced sales of assets such as Santi Cazorla to Arsenal.
Malaga were one of two Spanish clubs (along with Atletico Madrid) to have prize money withheld by Uefa in September for failing to operate within their means, but they seem to have retained enough quality and developed enough of a siege mentality to continue thriving on the pitch.
But for how long? With only four clubs in La Liga rated as financially stable, other countries may soon encroach on to Spain's traditional territory.
Italy has already lost ground. With its clubs in varying degrees of turmoil, Serie A's results deteriorated in recent years to the extent that they lost one of their four Champions League places. It went to Germany instead, not exactly a new footballing power but the Bundesliga does perhaps offer models for sustainable success, with Borussia Dortmund top of a group featuring the Spanish and English champions, flying the flag for a league where most clubs are economically rational.
Although they are flush enough to have bought Marco Reus from Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer, Dortmund have not simply spent their way to the top of a group featuring City and Real. The same goes for Shakhtar.
Success is not solely about money. Shrewd coaching and investment count for something. Celtic are showing it too.
Even Ajax showed that -- and City perhaps provided negative proof -- when the Dutch champions, with a team of almost entirely home-grown players, outplayed City to win 3-1 last month. Still, it has been five seasons since a Dutch club made it to the knockout stages and none look like making it through this year.
Bate Borisov, on the other hand, may just become the first Belarusian side to reach the last 16. Under the canny management of Viktor Goncharenko and with several members of the Belarus team that finished third in the 2011 under 21 European Championship, they have been a refreshing presence in this season's tournament. Even so, there was a lot of luck involved in their 3-1 win against Bayern and they were battered at home by Valencia in their last outing, so there remains a risk that they will be this year's Apoel Nicosia, the Cypriot side who reached last season's quarter-finals but were beaten in the preliminary round this season by Neftci of Azerbaijan.
A club frequently cited as a model for all aspirants outside the big four leagues are Porto, currently standing above PSG at the top of Group A.
There is plenty to admire about the Portuguese champions, especially their worldwide network of 200 scouts. Over the past decade the club have made more than £300m from transfers thanks to the sale of players such as Deco, Radamel Falcao, Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez.
Their acumen is in evidence again this season, as the departed Hulk has been unmissed and two hitherto unheralded Colombians, James Rodriguez and Jackson Martinez, have taken centre stage. Now they, too, are being linked with big-money moves abroad. Yet despite their windfalls, Porto are heavily in debt, and are saddled with high wages, the cost of building a new stadium for Euro 2004 and the country's wider economic woes.
Rodriguez is reportedly being watched by Manchester United. But will United be outbid again by the new big spenders, as they were when PSG gazumped them for the Brazilian midfielder Lucas Moura, who is due to arrive from Sao Paulo in January, in time for the latter stages of the Champions League?
Irish Independent Sport Star Awards
Pick our magic sports moment of the year and win a trip for two to London. To view the shortlist and cast your vote click here.
Sunday Indo Sport