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Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Champions League last eight: Top quality or same old, same old?

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When Manchester United struggled through to the last eight of this year's quarter-finals it ensured that the last eight showed a striking resemblance  to the Forbes and Deloittes lists of the wealthiest clubs in the world.

The last eight come from the English, Spanish, German and French leagues. With the exception of a club from Serie A , it's pretty much exactly what the TV executives, sponsors and advertisers would want. And the one French club is newly mega-rich Paris St Germain with their mass of acquired talent, so  the absence of Serie A isn't a big deal.

The last eight line up begs the (facetious) question of whether we need to bother with the competition in the first place.  Perhaps UEFA should conduct a "weigh-in" as in boxing, and the teams with the largest stacks of cash go straight to the quarters.

Bayern champsBecause wealth counts in this competition. This year's last eight contains six of the top 13 clubs on Forbes most recent list of richest clubs in the world, including four of the top seven.  The exceptions are PSG, who are effectively mega-rich and should really be in the top 10 on spending power, and Ateltico Madrid.

Atletico are in the Deloittes world top 20 on income generated, although outside the Forbes top 20. In this company they count as outsiders or minnows!

Looking at the clubs in the world top 10 who are not in the last eight, Arsenal and Manchester City were knocked out by other top 10 clubs, Liverpool didn't enter because four of the top 10 above them are English. Only Milan and Juventus were eliminated by teams outside the top 10.

It's a cosy club. Manchester United are on a run (possibly about to end) of 18 consecutive appearances in the competition. Real Madrid are on 17, Barcelona and Bayern Munich missed one year in the last 16,  Arsenal and Chelsea are on runs of 16 and 11 and Milan have appeared 17 times in all. Juventus have 14 despite their exclusions for domestic offences.

The Champions League does exactly what it is supposed to do. Nearly all of the biggest clubs in the world participate and the group stages ensure that they get to the knockout rounds, except when the occasional "group of death" appears. The possibility of early elimination is virtually ruled out so long as the big clubs are functioning normally.

So does it deliver? For the fans of these clubs the answer is yes. For clubs from smaller leagues the answer is also yes, because winning their competitions pitches them in to the glamour and lucrative matches regularly. Armchair fans want to watch the "big clashes",  so their needs are satisfied and by definition, advertisers, UEFA and TV bosses.

The losers are fans of clubs trying to get into the Champions League. The money from the competition gives the elite the chance to lock up their domestic leagues and ensure a return to the Champions League in a virtuous or unvirtuous circle, depending on your view.

The armchair fans also "lose" in the sense that so many games are essentially meaningless. In most groups it is easy to predict a weak club which will end up an also-ran. Some groups are decided with two match days left.

The weaker clubs in the competition earn shedloads of money for providing opposition but their chances of getting out of groups are small. Winning the thing or getting to the semis is basically unthinkable. In the pre-1994 two leg knockout format, everyone could dream - now those dreams are only for a few clubs.

My personal opinion? Boring. Yes, it's scandalous to say it but even with Lionel Messi I don't want to watch Barcelona  all the time and if I do, I want to see him in games where the teams opposite have a chance.

And I don't want to see the same clubs turning up year after year in the last eight. When a Malaga bursts through, or Villarreal a few years back, suddenly the competition becomes alive again.

At the moment the Champions League hits the spot for supporters of the greatest clubs and for the casual football watcher seeking the best "quality".  It doesn't work for fans of the game in general who remember the glorious unpredictability of the European Cup but after 20 years there's less and less of us about!

Do you agree with Hugh? Is the Champions League stale and boring? Whatever your view, we'd love to hear from you.

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Hugh Larkin



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