Champions League Evolution – Pulling the Thread

On Monday 11 December 2017, the draw for the last 16 of this season’s Champions League took place. Amid the fanfare and over-hyped ceremony, the draw threw up some intriguing and exciting ties, but also an insight into the future and potential problems or issues that we may be faced with in the coming years.

The draw threw up the following ties:

  • Juventus (ITA) Tottenham (ENG); 
  • Basel (SUI) Man. City (ENG); 
  • Porto (POR) Liverpool (ENG); 
  • Sevilla (ESP) Man. United (ENG); 
  • Real Madrid (ESP) Paris (FRA); 
  • Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR) Roma (ITA); 
  • Chelsea (ENG) Barcelona (ESP); 
  • Bayern (GER) Beşiktaş (TUR). 

There are a couple of ties which jump off the page, notably the Real/PSG and Barca/Chelsea games. In the media after the draw certain teams such as Shakhtar, Besiktas, Basel, Sevilla and Porto have also be derided as easy games for their respective opponents.

There is a trend with the above, we are and have been at a stage for a few years where there is an expectation that teams from the “big leagues” will occupy the spots in the draw for the knockout stages, certainly the last 8, 4 and 2 have become somewhat predictable as the bigger clubs carve up the competition amongst themselves. For clubs such as Sevilla, Basel or Porto to routinely get through to this stage, on vastly smaller budgets is a great achievement in itself – but is this going to become a rarity in the coming years?

There has also been much discussion, moaning and cursing of “bad luck” in the draw, particularly from the likes of Real, Barca, Chelsea and PSG who have been matched up together and so two of these four, who could be argued as favourites for the competition, will be out before Easter which will likely be seen as an absolute failure by demanding owners. As the chance of smaller clubs progressing in the competition diminishes, will there now be a far more cut throat approach amongst the top sides as well as a further widening of the existing chasm between the have and have-nots  in European Club Football as the likes of Real, PSG or Barca look to spend €Squillions on players to ensure success?

This season is the last before an amendment to the format of the Champions League, whereby there will be 4 automatic qualification spots for teams from the top 4 ranked leagues (nominally England, Spain, Germany, Italy). As has been seen over the years, TV money and success in the Champions League breeds further success in the Champions League as revenues wash in and the ability to spend, and need to keep up with other teams in the Competition create a gap even at this “top level” competition. The agreement to further ring fence the funding and revenues from the competition among a small group of clubs while previous elite, institutional or even successful clubs are sidelined and forced to jump through further hoops to be allowed to dine at the top table. Examples of this are widespread, former winners like Ajax are no longer guaranteed a place in the competition, as per the recent news that the Dutch League is no longer to have an automatic qualification place – perhaps a sign of the recent decline in Dutch football, both at club level and internationally, but also perhaps a result of previously successful, famous and institutional European Clubs such as Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord being sidelined and punished or just left behind as a result of not having a big, glamourous domestic league.

Moving forward, it is easy to predict that the ring fencing of competition places to 16 places from 4 leagues while other leagues feed of scraps and fight to make up the numbers, it may not be long before the last 16 is made up of teams solely from the biggest leagues. Given the seeding or weighting in the draws which prevent clubs from the same league playing against each other too early, these teams will all be evenly distributed through the groups and will avoid each other in the last-16 draw, increasing the chance of success for teams from the big leagues. The spreading of the heavyweights through the competition also limits the opportunity for so called smaller teams to squeek through, aside from perhaps limited instances of exceptional form or indeed poor form from a club from one of the top 4 leagues. Admittedly, with PSG in the picture as well, from outside the “top 4”, the chance of a “top 16” from the big leagues forming is perhaps not as likely at the moment – but 15 from 16 plus PSG certainly is.

The above scenario may seem all well and good to the top leagues and the money men, TV companies and the like who between them agree how the competition should be structured. Now this is not necessarily a criticism, watching matches such as an “El Classico” or seeing Juve v PSG in a fight to the death early knockout match will be enticing and something which I would certainly look to watch – so to that extent the money men as described have done their job in increasing the excitement. However the risk of Real Madrid meeting PSG in the last 16, like this year, and one of these teams being knocked out at such an early stage is unlikely to be seen as sustainable for the big clubs for too long – increased risks of meeting a fellow big boy early on will lead to an increased risk averse strategy seeking to best equip themselves for such meetings and will lead to further extreme spending, like the £100-200M per player spent last summer. In turn this warps domestic competition making many leagues even more unbalanced as the big clubs look to spend and keep up with their European peers, leaving their own domestic rivals behind.

What this could lead to is a situation where we have, say 16 top sides, with an elite 4-6 perhaps who can progress and spend further than most. The rest of Europe could then turn into something of a nursery or feeder system – the big clubs can’t risk players who are not competition ready so basically have an elite side with either loanees out at smaller clubs or just pick off the best talent once it is fully ripened – you could argue a version of this is already in place. In turn this exaggerated structure would lead to limited competition for domestic trophies and titles as the biggest routinely win, in turn this may lead to increased competition between the rest of the league for “best of the rest” titles but not much else – a potential result is the reduction of interest from fans of smaller clubs, as they want to see their team win. As you trace this back and pull the thread further (albeit admittedly conjecture at this stage) a lot unravels for the wider game outwith the elite level.

Furthermore, with big clubs risking being knocked out of the Champions League early, then returning to domestic matters to canter to their league title, interest may also diminish here further. This then may lead to more calls for a Champions LEAGUE, where the top 16 say just do away with their domestic leagues and play in a league of their own all season, with big, glamourous match ups week on week. The remaining domestic leagues would then fight and scrap for places in the Europa League. Again, a bit of conjecture here and whether a league system for big teams would be appealling given the need to win 30 games rather than 7 (last 16 – Final) to be crowned the best in Europe is another matter.

What is true however is the fact that the Champions League and top level European Competition is accelerating away from the rest of club football at an exponentially quicker rate, not seen before. However you look at things, the results for clubs outwith the elite is a further sidelining and looking on enviously to the top table without ever being invited again. Whether this is good or bad in the long term remains to be seen – although those who make the decisions will see it as a success, if only through looking at their swelling bank balances.


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