As the Champions League returns on Tuesday night, Miguel Delaney says the structure of the competition is draining interest.
The Champions League is now the ultimate destination in club football, maybe even the ultimate trophy in sport as a whole, but even at its moment of supremacy, the oddity is that the path to success has changed so significantly – and become so uneven.
These days, the European Cup is very rarely the divine end point of long journeys for clubs in the way it was for so much of its history. No longer is it always won by the best teams in their own countries, let alone the best team on the continent.
The identity of many of its recent champions proves as much: Chelsea 2012, Real Madrid 2014, Real Madrid 2016. They were all in relative states of transition at the time they won it, rather than coming to triumphant peaks; their victories owed almost as much to blind chance as far-sighted planning.
Forthcoming alterations to the structure of the competition will only entrench this situation. The extension of more guaranteed group places to the elite leagues will push the Champions League further down this path: it will make it even more of a two-tiered event.
Although it will mean the group stage is even more predictable, the latter stages are likely to only increase in unpredictability. That will be because more wealthy clubs will reach the knock-outs, where the sudden-death sudden-impact nature of two-legged ties then minimises the differences in quality that become apparent over the course of league campaigns. It all means that Europe’s grand competition becomes one big lottery.
Sure, we could talk at this point about how Barcelona should be in the best shape to win it and are probably the best side in the Champions League, but the shape of the competition makes circumstances like form less relevant than ever. There are more teams of similar resources, meaning there is much more potential to be punished for any slip or mishap.
As one high-ranking Premier League official revealed to this column a few months ago, the hierarchies at the top clubs are well aware of how one bad game or one unfair red card for one big player can divert an entire campaign. It is why most now don’t specifically target winning the Champions League in the way managers like Sir Alex Ferguson used to. They know it’s too random. The European objectives of most are now to just try and regularly reach the last four, hoping that circumstances occasionally allow them to go beyond.
They are conscious of the fact that, at this point, a dysfunctional rich team is as likely to win it as one of the genuinely great teams. That is also why Barcelona 2011 were directly succeeded by Chelsea 2012.
As to what it means for this season, it does feel as if the opening of a new Champions League campaign isn’t the event it used to be – largely because the group stage is not as exacting as it used to be and doesn’t have any true significance. The theme music will come on, but – like the matches, and as a consequence of them – it won’t have any proper emotional impact for a few months.
There are at least some elements to this specific opening round that could condition the March-May period more than usual. If the 16 teams to go through seem easier to predict than usual, some of the challenges for those crucial top spots are quite charged. The new seeding system has pitted together Barca and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City; last season’s semi-finalists Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich; and defending champions Real Madrid with Thomas Tuchel’s upwardly mobile Borussia Dortmund.
Those duels could greatly influence the quarter-finals – the point when the competition starts ‘for real’ – and they do at least throw up some questions that make these early games a little more engaging.
Can Guardiola get his City side to the point where they can really pose Barca enough of a threat to somehow nullify Leo Messi? Can Diego Simeone really sustain Atletico’s sensationally intense competitiveness, and will Carlo Ancelotti improve Bayern Munich to actually win the competition, or is there a danger of a post-Guardiola drop-off?
Can a vibrant Dortmund out-think a team in Real Madrid who sometimes feel top-heavy and bloated? Can Real themselves become the first club in 27 years to manage the gold-standard feat of actually retaining the competition? And that as a team who struggle to complete the historically more rudimentary achievement of winning their domestic league.
That prospect alone sums up so many of the contradictions of this top-heavy competition and how it is destined to seemingly just be passed around the rich clubs in a way a league can’t be, but there are admittedly some more distinctive new elements to this season’s campaign too.
How will Leicester City adapt to Europe – and how will the top European teams adapt to Leicester’s approach? Can Mauricio Pochettino’s high-energy style at Tottenham have the same effect? Will Unai Emery finally help Paris Saint-Germain to make the leap that was beyond Laurent Blanc and Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Will any of this mean that the trophy – for the first time since 2012 – does not go to one of Bayern, Barca or Real? Will one thing about the end destination change?
The build-up to a Champions League’s opening game has certainly changed from what it used to be even a decade ago.